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Stoneheart

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        You are running around the gardens, ducking around tall hedges. Something glimmers just out of your reach in front of you. It’s quick too. And you have been chasing it for the better part of an hour. Every time you think you got it, your small hands reaching out to catch it, it darts away suddenly. You have to stop for a moment to catch your breath.

        In that second, the small glimmering creature floats closer to you. It’s just as curious of you as you are of it. You hold out a hand and it stands on your palm. Your eyes widen as you look closer at it.

 “Hello.” You say softly to the faery in your hand. It curtsies in response. You chuckle.

 “What have you got there, Lance?” Your mother asks you, just as out of breath as you had been. You turn around and show her.

 “It’s a faery!” You smile. Your mother freezes and frowns.

 “A what?”

 “A faery!”

 “Don’t be silly, Lance.” She looks down at you, almost upset.

 “But it’s the truth, it really is a faery.” You stomp a foot.

 “Oh Lance,” She frowns as guardsmen come up to her side. “There is no such thing as faeries.”

 “But it’s right here.” You raise your hands up to her. Townsfolk are starting to come up behind the guardsmen. They slowly circle you and your mother. You look around at the faces, all of them twisted in disgust and fear.

 “Amá?” You look back over at her, but she is gone, swallowed up by the mob that’s closing in on you. You hold the faery close to your chest, as the people point their weapons at you.

 “Amá!” You call out louder. “Please! I’m sorry!” You can’t breathe, claustrophobia getting the better of you.

        Everything jolts and you smack your head against the window you’d been leaning against. You groan and rub your head. Across from you, your cousin Allura chuckles.

 “Did you get enough beauty sleep?” She asks.

 “More than you did, I’m sure of it.” You sit up straighter.

 “Can you blame me?” She dusts off her skirt and folds her hands on her lap, a simple silver band over her left ring finger contrasting sharply against her dark skin. 

 “Not really, but if your fiancé decides that I’m the prettier cousin and marries me instead, you can’t complain.” You tease her. She was up all night nervously pacing around, that is something you know for sure.

 “Of course, I can’t. At least I’d know his heart was never mine to hold.” She nudges you gently.

 “You really think you’ll fall in love with him?” You ask Allura, leaning forward on your arms.

 “I’d hope so. We are to be married after all, and it’d be nice if we did care about one another.” She plays with a lock of her white hair before tossing it back over her shoulder. With it all being white since birth her people have considered her to be blessed by the Gods themselves, much like her parents before her.

 “I’m sure King Alfor wouldn’t set you up with a total jerkwad,” You pat her leg. “But just in case he did, I’m here.”

 “And you’ll immediately whisk me back to the Castle of Lions?” She gives you a teasing smile, blue eyes shimmering with mirth.

 “Of course, what’s family for?” You smile back.

        The carriage the two of you are riding in starts to slow down. You glance out the window you had taken a nap against and see Stoneheart Castle looming close by. There is a slight pause in which the doors open to allow you inside. You look back over at Allura who closes her eyes and takes a few deep breaths. The carriage finally pulls to a stop, lining up with the main entrance for the castle.

        You give Allura a reassuring squeeze to her knee before opening the door and stepping out. A man, who you do not know, approaches you. His hair is shaved close to the skin on one side, nearly bald, the other half coming to a halt just above his jaw. You can't tell if it's white due to his age or if he too has been blessed or cleansed deeply by the Gods. You give him a polite nod as you offer Allura your hand. She takes it to keep herself steady as she steps out of the carriage as well. She whispers a soft thank you and smiles at the welcoming party.

        Coran, Allura’s advisor, quickly jogs over from the main entrance as well. He makes sure his hair is still slicked back, one errant strand freeing itself once more before he comes and shakes your hand. Allura pulls him into a small hug.

 “It’s good to see you two!” Coran says cheerfully, orange mustache twitching under his smile.

 “It’s good to see you as well.” You smile. You quite like Coran, he’s a quirky but kind man.

 “How was your trip?” Allura asks him.

 “Oh, it went well. I can safely assure you the Stoneheart castle is in tip-top shape to receive not only you but your cousin as well. Romelle also made sure of it.” He crosses his arms behind his back. Romelle is Allura’s dear, sweet, lady-in-waiting. She’s bubbly and excitable but she gets along well with Allura.

 “And how was your trip Princess Allura, Prince Lance?” The strange man asks you.

 “It was a bit bumpy at the end, but I slept like a baby.” You stretch your arms over your head and hum softly when your spine pops.

 “I’m glad to hear that. I am Ulaz, advisor to King Shirogane.” Ulaz bows to you two.

 “It is nice to meet you, Ulaz.” Allura smiles.

 “Where is the King anyway?” You ask.

 “Currently he’s in a meeting, he shouldn’t be much longer now,” Ulaz says, leading the way towards the castle’s doors. Various servants grab your items out of the carriage and haul them inside. You find your eyes lingering along the rooftops of the castle. You could have sworn you saw something.

 “Lance?” Allura calls out, pulling you back down to earth. She gives you a knowing look and you quickly catch up with them.

 “Did you see something interesting?” She asks as you walk inside with her.

 “No.” You say firmly. She pouts, and you turn your attention to the paintings that line the walls. They’re finely detailed, hung in fancy frames in neat rows that mirror each other on either side. You may not recognize the people in them, but you do recognize the feeling of pride they all exude. These were important people, people of power.

        All their eyes follow you as you walk down the long hallway. It sends a small shiver down your spine and has you glancing twice at each one. You give them all polite nods to appease your nerves. You pause for a moment in front of one of the paintings. It’s the only one not fully demanding your attention. How ironic.

        It’s smaller than the others, a bit singed in one corner and the frame a bit dated. Instead of a single person completely dominating the whole picture, it’s a small family. There's a king, one hand resting on the back of the chair where the queen sits, the other on the shoulder of a young man. You find your hand reaching out to touch the frame.

 “Lance, my boy, this way!” Coran calls out. You turn around and see him waiting a bit down the hallway, the others having gone on without you.

 “Coming!” You spare one last glance back at the painting before catching up, again. Coran chuckles.

 “Draws you in, doesn’t it?” He says as he walks alongside you.

 “Huh?” You look over at him.

 “That painting.”

 “Oh. Yeah, I guess it does.”

 “Here we are.” Coran says pulling one of the large doors open for you to step through. On the other side is the throne room. Allura and Romelle are chatting to one another. Ulaz seems to have disappeared for the time being. Coran walks over to the ladies as you look around at the room.

        You can see that the sun is starting to set behind the stained-glass windows. You can’t help but wonder if the night sky is as clear as it is at the Castle of Lions. You walk over to where the group patiently waits for King Shirogane.

 “--very charming! You’re quite lucky! Oh, and he’s so sweet.” Romelle sighs, clasping her hands together, purple eyes shining.

 “Let me guess, the King?” You interrupt.

 “Yes, actually. Oh, you’ll love him. King Shiro is nothing short of a gentleman.” Romelle rests a reassuring hand on Allura’s shoulder.

 “I can’t believe you met my fiancé before I did.” Allura whines softly.

 “Is there anything we should know about him? Like, does he have weird ears?” You ask.

 “You still haven’t gotten over that?” Allura looks over at you.

 “You totally insulted me!” You press a hand to your chest.

 “We were six!”

 “My point remains.” You laugh.

 “Well actually…” Romelle starts. You both give her your full attention. She goes to say something when a side chamber door opens. Ulaz steps through it first.

 “May I introduce you all to King Shirogane.” He bows and gestures to the open door. A man, the King you’d guess, steps through. His dark cloak billows out slightly as he strides forward with confidence. He smiles and it nearly outshines the sun. Even the scar across the bridge of his nose and the small patch of white hair amongst the ink dark strands are only an addition to his charm and not a deterrent. You glance over at Allura, she certainly is lucky. 

 “I’m glad to finally meet you.” He says, stopping a bit in front of you and Allura.

 “I can say the feeling is quite mutual.” Allura says. You bow to him when he turns his attention to you.

 “King Shirogane, thank you for allowing me to join my cousin.”

 “Please, just ‘Shiro’ is fine Prince Lance.” Shiro chuckles, waving his left hand.

 “Then just ‘Lance’ is fine too.” You straighten yourself up, bringing your arms behind your back.

 “Of course,” He offers his left hand to Allura. “How was your trip?”

 “It was lovely, thank you.” She steps a bit closer and takes his hand.

 “I know the road gets a bit rougher in a few spots so it’s good to know it was peaceful.” He kisses her knuckles and you watch her ears start to turn pink. You look over at Romelle and she shakes her head and smiles.

King Shirogane kissing Princess Allura's knuckles while Prince Lance stands in the foreground, looking at the pair over his shoulder and smiling

 “Are you hungry? The chef has been preparing for dinner for a bit now. He’s quite excited.”

 “I do suppose I am a bit hungry, but I’d love a quick tour of the castle first. I wouldn’t want to get lost finding my way to my room.” Allura shyly glances at the floor. You force your groan down. You’re happy for her, you really are, but you are starving. You could eat a whole horse right about now.

 “A quick tour? I can do that for sure.” Shiro says as he takes a slight step back. Allura reaches out, going to tuck her hand in the bend of his arm as she does so often with you. However, her hand doesn’t quite connect with his arm through the cloak, as if nothing's there.

 “Oh.” She says softly, briefly surprised.

 “Sorry,” Shiro offers her his left arm instead. “Let’s try that again?” He gives her a small smile. She nods and takes his arm, stepping closer to him once more.

 “I didn’t know.” She says softly. You almost didn’t catch it yourself either, so you don’t blame her.

 “It’s alright, most don’t.” He reassures her.

        Shiro starts to lead you through the halls. He points out various doorways and explains where things are. He shows Allura where she will be staying and how Romelle happens to be staying in the room with her. Shiro also guides you down another hallway and shows you where you will be staying as well.

        You try to memorize this section of the hallway as Shiro starts to show you back to the dining hall. You freeze when you notice another doorway next to yours that Shiro hadn’t quite pointed out.

 “Hey, um, Shiro?” You ask. He stops and turns to face you.

 “Yes?”

 “What about that room? Is it like the ugly step-sister of rooms, because you totally just ignored her.” You jerk your thumb over to the door.

 “That’s,” He pauses, thinking over his words. “That’s the Beast’s Room.”

 “Ah. Yes, of course,” You tap the side of your head. “How could I have been so foolish. The Beast’s room. The room for the Beast. The chamber made specifically for the Beast.” You say sarcastically. Allura gives you a warning look.

 “You don’t have to believe in it, but it does protect the castle.” Shiro chuckles softly.

 “Oh... oh you’re serious.” You say.

 “Quite.”

 “I didn’t mean to mock --” You’re cut off by the growling in your belly.

 “No no, it’s fine, honest. Let’s finish up the tour? I do believe that’s your stomach growling and not the Beast.” He teases.

 “Actually, that’s probably Allura’s.” You smirk as you step closer to the group. It earns you an elbow to the side from Romelle. You whine and rub your side. She has some sharp elbows, that’s for sure. She should consider getting them peace-tied. Shiro, who clearly values his life and sides, says nothing on the matter and escorts you all down to the dining hall.

        Night has fallen outside the castle, you can see it outside the windows. It’s a clear night out tonight as well. You make a mental note to try and look at the stars after dinner as soon as you can. As you walk the hallways with the group, you can’t help but feel like you’re being watched. You find yourself glancing over your shoulder a few times too many for it to be a coincidence.

        You don’t get to dwell on it too long though, as Shiro conducts you through the doors to the dining hall. The table is already set, food prepared and waiting. Shiro pulls out the chair to his left of the table for Allura. She thanks him as he pushes it back in when she sits down. Romelle sits with her and Shiro takes the head of the table. You sit to his right and Coran hovers next to you.

 “You know you can sit and join us, Coran.” Shiro gives him an amused look.

 “I am aware.” He says but makes no move to sit. Ulaz melts out of the shadows and hovers over by Shiro’s side as well.

 “Same with you.” Shiro looks over his shoulder at his advisor.

 “Kind of you, but I will be fine.” Ulaz says. Shiro simply shrugs and leans back to give the servants room to work. They are quick to place the finishing touches to your plates, before disappearing once more. This gives you all kinds of heebie-jeebies. People don’t vanish into thin air. Human people just don’t do that.

        And now you’re on that train of thought again. You can still feel the eyes burning into your back and you glance quickly over your shoulder once more. You squint out the window, and you could almost make out a shape against the dark sky.

 “Is something bothering you?” Shiro asks you. You jump and turn back around to face them.

 “Uh… No. No, I’m good.” You lie as the eyes don’t stop burning holes into your shoulders.

 “You seem tense. Are you sure you’re alright?” Allura asks you.

 “Totally sure. Like one hundred percent sure.” You point your fork at her. She looks unconvinced. You don’t even convince yourself either, so you can’t blame her. Shiro seems to be buying it though, and as the host, it is important to him that you feel comfortable.

 “On an unrelated note, what’s the story with the beast?” You ask. If Allura sees right through you, she doesn’t comment on it. In fact, you pointedly look at the food you’re stabbing with your fork when you mention it.

 “Well, I can’t tell you too much about it.” Shiro says.

 “You don’t know much about the beast that has its own room in your castle?” You look at him with disbelief.

 “It’s not that, no,” He shakes his head. “There are just some details I don’t have, things not even my parents knew.”

 “Is the beast really that old?” Allura asks.

 “Older. Much, much, older.” Shiro carefully sets his fork down to take a drink from his goblet.

 “So… what do you know about it?” You tilt your head.

 “It is only awake at night and it is frightening to behold. It protects the castle and generally keeps to itself. In fact, I have only ever seen it once.”

 “And it’s friendly?” Allura leans forward slightly against the table.

 “I like to think it is.” Shiro smiles at her.

 “You think it is?” The eyes on your back suddenly feel way more dangerous.

 “Yes. It’s never once hurt anyone here. Especially if we take good care of the gargoyles.” Shiro looks over to you.

 “The gargoyles? The only thing keeping the beast from snapping are the gargoyles?”

 “It seems to be rather fond of them.” Shiro shrugs. Another comment is on the tip of your tongue when a shudder runs down your spine. You are quick to glance out the window behind you again, only to realize that whatever had been watching you is now gone.

 “Scared of a boogeyman, Prince Lance?” Romelle teases. You close your eyes and take a quick breath before turning back to her.

 “Boogeymen don’t scare me because they aren’t real.” You focus on the meal in front of you.

 “Lance…” Allura starts. You give her a look over your goblet as you take a hearty swig of it. Whatever it is, it’s certainly smoother than Nunvil and doesn’t burn your throat the same way.

 “It’s not real.” You tell her as you finish up the last of your food. Allura frowns but lets it go for now. You have no doubt that she’ll corner you later and try to get you to talk about it.

        Shiro clears the sudden tension in the room by telling a much more light-hearted tale of some of the townsfolk he lets into the castle. Apparently, he welcomes some of the most brilliant young minds into his own study chambers. He helps them grow and learn from what they wouldn’t have had access to before. Allura gives him a warm, gooey look the whole time he talks.

        Servants appear once more to quickly take your empty plates and goblets away. You give the window behind you one more look before following Shiro’s lead and retiring for the night. He’s telling both you and Allura where you can find him if you need him. Romelle and Coran wait a bit further down the hallway for you two.

 “And Lance?” Shiro turns to you more fully.

 “Yeah?” You straighten up.

 “Do not go into the Beast’s room.” He warns as if he knew the thought had crossed your mind for a second or two.

 “Well, it’s not like I had planned on it.” You admit, but now you are extremely curious. Shiro has no idea what he’s done.

 “I’m serious. Don’t go into that room.” It nearly feels like when your father would tell you to stay out of his study.

 “I won’t,” You raise one hand as you bring the other behind your back. “Scouts honor, Shiro. I won’t go into the Beast’s room.” Your fingers are crossed behind you before you even finish your sentence. Shiro smiles and gives your shoulder a solid pat. It’s much stronger than you had been expecting and you stumble slightly from it. What the hell does this guy do, lift goats with one hand?

 “Goodnight then, Lance.” He chuckles as you regain your balance.  

 “Goodnight King Shirogane.” You say. He shakes his head and turns to Allura. He takes her hand and kisses her knuckles again.

 “Until morning’s light, Princess.” Shiro whispers. She covers her smile behind her free hand.

 “Sleep well, King Shiro.” Allura says. He slowly lets go of her hand as you link your arm with hers. You pull her away because you get the distinct feeling they would stand there making goo-goo eyes at each other all night if they could. You can hear the King turn and head down the hall in the opposite direction of you two.

        Romelle and Coran accompany you towards your rooms. Coran bids you all goodnight when you reach his suite. You wish for him to get some decent sleep. He works quite a lot for you two after all. Romelle and Allura exchange some sort of silent conversation that you never did learn the not-language of. Whatever was not-said, there seems to have been an agreement reached between the two of them.

 “Why do I have a bad feeling that you’re plotting something?” You ask Allura softly when Romelle curtsies for you both before slipping into their room.

 “Me? Plot? Have you mistaken me for a mirror?” Allura pouts up at you.

 “Nah, I look way better.” You tease. She pinches your inner arm, causing you to yelp loudly.

 “Serves you right.” Allura says, pulling her arm from yours and crossing them over her chest.

 “Jeez.” You rub at your arm. She shakes her head and then looks you over. Oh no. Dread creeps up in your chest. You know what she’s going to ask about before she opens her mouth.

 “We’re not talking about it, Allura.”

 “Lance, I know you can sense something in the castle.”

 “No, I can’t.” You deny immediately.

 “You know that I, of all people, would not judge you. You have a gift, Lance.” Allura reaches out for you. You take a step back.

 “I don’t have a gift, because I can’t return it. It’s a curse.” You cross your arms tightly in front of you.

 “It’s not a curse.” She says.

 “You only say that because you can’t see them.” You whisper harshly.

 “So, you admit that you can see them.” She smiles. And, hell, she’s got you there.

 “Drop it, Allura.” You press your fingers into your sides as you pull your shoulders in close.

 “Lance…”

 “Please.” You beg softly. You absolutely do not want to talk about this. Not in the slightest. Allura takes pity on you and sighs.

 “Alright. But you know where I stand.” She says. You give her a stiff nod.

 “Goodnight, Allura.” You tell her.

 “Don’t stay up too late.” She says as you walk down the hallway towards your suite.

        You ignore the feeling of being watched again. It’s simply your mind playing tricks on you. You didn’t sleep well, you’re stressed, you’re tired, and this place is new and unfamiliar. Of course, you feel like everything is watching you. You step into your room and heave a sigh of relief.

        You are quick to pull on your night clothes and take a step out to the balcony of your suite. You lean against the rail and look at the night sky. The stars are bright and beautiful as always, but you aren’t sure where your telescope is to really appreciate them. Otherwise, you’d be down in the gardens right now. It’s also a bit nippy out; fall is starting to settle down and you aren’t quite dressed for the weather. Still, you want to reach out and be drowned in the vastness of space, shrouded in the blanket of stars.

        You close your eyes and just breathe. It’s silent out, save for a few insects down in the gardens below. If you listen very closely you can hear the clock tower in the town chime out the hour. You smile as you open your eyes. You look over at the gargoyle statue that’s perched on the railing next to you.

 “As long as I’m nice to you, right?” You mumble softly to it. You step back into your room and grab a light blanket off your bed. When you come back, you drape it around the statue’s shoulders and pat it gently.

 “That should help keep you warm.” You say. You swear you hear a chuckle come from behind you. You whip around but don’t find anything.

 “Hello?” You call out. No one responds. You shake your head and take another deep breath again. Distantly you are aware of something hiding just out of sight, but you choose to ignore it.

 “It’s not real. The boogeyman isn’t real.” You murmur to yourself as you step back in and close the balcony door. You pull the curtains shut for good measure. Not because the boogeyman is outside, but because the moon is bright and it will keep you awake. Obviously. You run your hands over your face and groan.

 “We’re one big mess, aren’t we?” You mumble to yourself as you walk over to the vanity. You make quick work of washing your face and neck. You lean forward and inspect your face. Nothing seems wrong or off about it, no marks where there shouldn’t be. You’re not studying your face in case something bothers you at night and leaves behind a mark or two.

        Ugh, why did Shiro make you sleep in the room next to the beast? That’s so unfair and rude of him. Plus, you’re not even supposed to go in there! How lame is that? You drum your fingers on your vanity and shake your head. As curious as you are, you think you’ll save that adventure for tomorrow at the very least.

        Besides, you should really be in bed. You crawl under the covers and blow out the bedside candle you don’t quite recall having lit. You put your back to it, specifically not thinking about it. However it has you facing the balcony door, and when you see a strange shadow move behind the curtains, you groan. You do what you’d often do as a child. You pull the blankets up over your head and pray for sleep to reach you quickly.