The leader of the Dusks knew it would be easy to cause havoc in the paradisal scene, and that finding the Al-Izz boy would take no effort. Ten thousand rubies for a job well done.
The Yīnyǐng did nothing else better than an attack.
“Toula,” the leader said, his voice a maelstrom. “Over here.”
The Yīnyǐng turned and approached and pulled back her hood. Toula’s wavy black hair tumbled down her back and she stood at attention before Tai. “Yes, Father?” she said.
Tai placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and pulled back his own hood. He had an expression of approval and one of anticipation written over his soft face.
This was Toula’s first mission with her father, the leader of the Dusk Yīnyǐng. Tai had raised her to take his place, and she wasn’t if she was quite ready. Her father was so meticulous in his training that she wouldn’t fail, but she wasn’t worried about failing; she was worried about the want to lead the ambush behind her father.
Toula was still over the shock of what her father had told her earlier that morning. He had her sit down with him in his tent and confessed that she was adopted, and he expected her to come to full performance. She had to listen to the entire story of his about his finding her and he expected her to remember all his training.
She still remembered her father’s gentle, caring embrace while she cried that morning, but she couldn’t promise she would remember all her training.
Tai sighed. “You are in a daze, Toula,” he whispered, kissing her forehead, “I need you to stay here. You’d get yourself killed.”
Toula frowned and shook her head, her hair bouncing around her. “Please, Father, I’ll make you proud. Just let me.”
It was her father’s turn to shake his head. “Toula, your mind is clouded. You won’t last. It won’t take us long to take down the palace and kill the boy.” He patted her shoulder and nodded to the rest of the company. “Make towards the prison. The boy is down there.”
He walked past Toula with a gaze that told her to stay put. The other Yīnyǐng, like siblings, each gave her pats on the shoulder, wishing her to come with them.
Toula couldn’t believe it. On her first official mission, she was left behind? What father would do that?
A father who left your whole backstory a mystery to you.
Toula sighed and sat on the grass, holding her head in her hands. She sat cross-legged and allowed herself to cry.
She remembered that morning.
“Wake up, my daughter,” whispered Tai, gently rocking her shoulder. “The sun’s up.”
Toula had squinted and groaned. “Only hardly, Father,” she yawned as she covered her face with her blanket.
Tai chuckled and pulled the blanket from her feet and she shivered. “All right, all right,” she grudgingly complied. She reached for her outer tunic and pulled it over her weather shirt and leggings. She tied it off with a satin belt and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Her father waited for her at the entrance of her yurt, cross-legged.
Toula had noticed she didn’t look exactly like Tai or her mother, Yahui, who stayed in their home past Osaka. Her hair was wavy and a different shade of black than the Hsu family’s midnight raven black. Her face was rounder, and she was taller than Yahui, and only a hair shorter than Tai. Come to think of it, she didn’t look like a Yīnyǐng at all.
As she pinned up her hair, she noticed that Tai looked uncomfortable. She frowned and looked around her room, seeing nothing to make a father worry.
“What’s wrong?” she asked tenderly. Toula knelt before him and held his hands in hers. “Father, please tell me.”
Tai looked up and sighed out, then abruptly pulled her into a hug. “I love you, Toula,” he said in a shaky voice, “I love you very much.”
Toula slowly returned the embrace, her brow furrowing. “I love you, Father,” she replied. “What’s wrong?”
Tai kissed her forehead and gazed into his daughter’s eyes. “I have something to tell you. It’s very important.”
In the mess hall tent, the father and daughter, kneeling at a low table with their backs as straight as rulers, sipped at their tea silently. Tai wanted to take his time, and it seemed as if he were bouting with a sick stomach. Toula only wanted to know what the problem was.
“Do… do you remember our stories of the Themaikosite Peninsula?” asked Tai, finishing his tea.
Toula shrugged. “I should think so. I was born while you and Mother were on a mission on the Peninsula.”
Tai grudgingly shook his head. “Actually, we, ah, we found you that day.”
The girl dropped her cup, her eyes frozen wide. “What?” she made in a whisper.
Her father looked down at his hands. “You’re not my child, Toula,” he admitted quietly. “You are not of the Hsu family.”
There was a silence between them, condensing above them, ready to break out into a storm of rage or showers of confusion. Toula’s shaky hands rested on the table, and she felt sick.
“Your full name is Fortoula Diana Loi,” confessed Tai. “You’re not Yīnyǐng. I found you only after your parents had left you as a baby on the streets, and I wanted to save you.” He looked back up at her and let a sigh out of his nose. “Only a few days old, and they left you. The least they did was they put your name on your wrist.”
Toula felt her face get hot and lights laughed and danced carelessly in her eyes. She took in a breath only when she felt like she was suffocating, then held it again.
Wake up, Toula, she implored herself. Wake up.
“I care for you deeply, my daughter,” Tai said quietly, “but it is your right to know.”
Toula was still sick in her stomach, and so inside, she was grateful Tai had her stay on the outskirts. She would have somehow gotten herself killed if she was on the mission.
She softly sighed and shook her head. She didn’t want to sit there and wait; there had to be something she could do. She wasn’t the kind of girl to sit idly by, daydreaming about her future; she was the girl who paved her future as she saw it shining on the tumultuous horizon, by cutting through the roaring waves that were life with the steel-eye of a proper warrior. It was her duty to be so adventurous.
She stood and swallowed down her leftover nausea and silently sprinted with the shadows into Vårthjem.
“Chance, Chance, Chance!” someone screamed as the dungeon door was flung open. Wynne flew down the stairs and accidentally rammed into the cell door. She rebounded and fell to the floor with a yelp. She wasn’t hurt, so he laughed. “This isn’t funny!” she shrieked, her eyes wide with horror.
Chance frowned. “What’s up?”
Wynne looked sick and terrified. “As-Asdis… it took just… one strike…” She took in deep, heaving breaths until she could pronounce at least one full sentence. “They killed her.”
He squinted. “Who did?” he asked carefully.
Wynne put a hand over her hand and shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Nóe stood and leaned against the bars. “Shrouded figures?” he guessed grimly.
She nodded. “Who are they?” The milkmaid gasped. “You’re the fisher’s boy from the stables!”
He halted her. “I need to talk with your queen. It’s imperative. They’re Yīnyǐng and they’re after me.”
Wynne cocked her head and shrugged. “Who are the Yīnyǐng?” After a pause, the girl vigorously shook her head. “Never mind. I don’t want to know.”
“Why’d you come to me?” asked Chance.
She sighed. “I don’t know where anyone else is.” Reluctantly, she looked back at Nóe. “What do you know of the Yin- the Yun- whatever they are?”
Nóe shrugged. “Whatever they tell people.”
She then glanced at Chance again, then opened Nóe’s cell. “Perhaps… perhaps you could warn someone, and you’d do a better job than me. Come with me.”
Nóe sent an inquiring glance to Chance, then followed.
“I could easily take you down, so don’t try anything funny.”
Chance scoffed and sat back down, now scared. Why were these Yīnyǐng here, and what were they to do while in Vårthjem? What was Nóe doing? What would become of all of them if they found Nóe?
He was surprised to hear the door quickly open and then shut again. He heard sobbing, and he was sure something was the matter. He opened his eyes and watched as Caislín, the one who was crying, crumpled against the wall near the door, inconsolable.
He frowned. What in all the realms could be the matter?
“What’s wrong?” he gently asked.
Caislín’s shoulders bounced with every heaving sob, but she looked up at him. “My mother, she… she’s… and… the Empress… I can’t think!” The queen fell into a state of hysterics as tears poured down her reddened cheeks. “Everything’s… everything’s different. I’m confused and scared and I’m angry!” She punched his cell wall and screamed.
Chance just watched as Caislín vented out her confusion. She leaned against the bars. “I had to be somewhere where the empress couldn’t find me and try to explain,” she grumbled, tenderly wiping away her tears. She let out a deep sigh. “I’m enraged with her.”
Chance nodded. “I can see that. Tell me not to get on your bad side.”
Caislín turned back and gazed at him with sparkling eyes. “Just… can you be quiet? May I tell you?”
Chance nodded and sucked in his lips. He wordlessly opened his ears to the queen, who screamed out the last few hours. She painted out with her language and gestures what Skadi had confessed, and how she didn’t want explanations, she just wanted it all to be a horrid joke played on her, and then she wouldn’t worry. She displayed her grief for the loss of her father, her questions about why Crofton would steal her crown and why the sapphire was so special, and a little less than an hour later, she was finished. She let out a deep sigh and gazed at Chance.
His eyes were as beautifully crystal as she remembered them. They pierced her deeply, as they never did.
As if he was out of practice, Chance laid a strong hand over hers and laced their fingers. He inspected her hand, trying to memorize every part of it. Was he distracting himself from his own thoughts? What was screaming through his mind? What did he wish to hold back? She wished she could crawl into his mind and chase away his fears and his regrets. She wished she could climb back out and into his strong arms, where she found safety so many years back. She yearned to touch his face and turn his lips upward, to see him smile again. She ached for the innocence she had beheld in his perfect blue eyes. Brought back to dark reality, Caislín laced her fingers with his and kissed the back of his hand. The reluctance about him was different, but it was the start to his renewal.
She was desperate to have Finn back. She needed his light, his safety, his confidence. Finn could help her trust the Protector’s plan, as her faith was tested on harsh waters. If Finnian Rhith O’Glesey could come back to her, if he could ever possibly step out of Chance, then she feel so much surer.
Come back to me, Finn, she pleaded, I need you so dearly. I need you now.
“Do I have to call you Your Highness?” he mumbled.
Caislín blinked. His voice was low and smooth, as always, with a touch of sarcasm. Unable to react more, she slightly shook her head.
“Or, rather, Casey,” she made out in a whisper. “I honestly don’t mind.”
Chance softly smiled. It was no smirk or sarcastic scoff. Apparently he did smile, contrary to Caislín’s firm belief.
He fell in love again. He couldn’t deny it. She was as broken as he was, and she needed him to repair her. He needed her. Chance could see the childhood taken from her in her large, sad eyes. They sparkled with tears, and yet, behind the brokenness and the pain, there was strength. Caislín knew she was a queen, and royalty would have to recover to lead. The determination was precious and he wished for it.
Her eyes sparkled again, and he saw a soft smile spread across her face. Instead of beads of tears, the shine were the stars across her eyes. He fell into them with hope to escape.
“I had a dream about you,” he mumbled, weaving his fingers together. “I think I remember.”
Caislín took in a short gasp. He nodded.
“It was simple, but, I remember it.” He frowned. “I don’t want to bore you.”
The queen shook her head and shifted against the bars into a more comfortable position. Her expression gave away her curiosity. He took in a deep breath, then let it out. “It was… about three years ago,” he said, far away. “You, Drystan, and I, we… we were out in the woods together, and you were trying to get away from the entourage for a while. It was noon and we found a stream, where we had a picnic.” He shrugged and rubbed his face. “It wasn’t all that amazing, but I’m so sure it’s a memory.”
Caislín nodded, a broad grin across her face. “I remember that day. You and Drystan almost fell into that stream. It was precious.”
Chance smiled again. How did she do that to him? Caislín made him smile. He couldn’t remember the last time he sincerely felt the need to grin from ear to ear. The opportunity to be happy had eluded him until the moment he was lost in Caislín’s eyes.
Chance held her hand to his heart. He felt her ring in his hand, and he looked down at his own. They were identical. He let out a small, unbelieving laugh and cradled her face in his other hand.
“I love you, Finn,” Caislín whispered.
He was ready to be Finn again.