Leasha looked to Cassian. “Cass?” she started.
“I know.” he held up a hand to stop her as he looked around at the friends they shared. “You both are heading onward,” he indicated Broc and Breanna, “but this must be where we part,” he glanced at Koax, “We three must be the ones to head back and gather our people. Once my people are on the march I shall enter the Weald Wood in your name and seek out your tribe.”
“They are on the far coast,” blurted Broc, “It may be possible to travel by sea if you can.”
“We can,” nodded Cassian a little brighter, obviously the thought of entering the weald wood had not been a good one. “But how shall they know it is your word of which I speak?”
The Wealderlings looked at one another then Breanna spoke, “This!” she said brightly pulling a cord from her neck with a runestone upon it, she held it out to Cassian but there was a sadness in her face as he took it. “My aunt Fia made it for me. She will recognise it… when you wear it, you shall feel the beat of her heart.” There was a soft crack in Breanna’s voice and Leasha wanted to reach out to her, to hold her and comfort her, but all she managed was a touch to the arm and Breanna looked up, a bitter smile upon her full lips.
Cassian nodded firmly. “You have my thanks.” He placed the cord around his neck, then shook his head. “I shall feel your absence distinctly, friend.” He took her shoulder then Breanna pulled him into a hug. Koax looked at the pair, hesitated a moment and wrapped his arms around them, Broc laughed and followed.
But Leasha hesitated, holding back, unwilling to say farewell.
It was a long moment before they pulled apart, glistening eyes and laughter at their lips. Then Cassian, taking a deep breath looked at Leasha. Her stomach dropped like a stone as he nodded to her.
“It is time,” he grinned, “I don’t know how we are to explain your absence to the Queen once when we return.”
There was a boulder sitting in her stomach. She needed more time. More time for excuses. More time to delay the inevitable. She glanced at Breanna, and Cassian caught her look. His eyebrow raised quizzically and Leasha shook her head. It was time to face up to her decision. “I-I’m not coming with you.”
A flash of anger flared in his eyes, he went to step forward but held back. His jaw tightened and his fist clenched. He glanced at the others then grabbed her arm, his bony fingers digging into her flesh. His pull was firm but not strong, she could have thrown him off but she allowed herself to be led away before snapping her arm back.
“If you think you can force me to change my mind, Cass, you are wrong.” She nearly spat the words, who was he to order the Royal Princess of Meadowvale.
“What are you doing?” he demanded.
She rubbed her arm and looked at him confused. “I want to help, Cassian, they need-”
“Help?” he spat, “help yourself more like.”
She stared at him, open-mouthed. Then the realisation of what he was accusing her of bubbled up in her mind. “How dare you?” she growled. “You think yourself my chaperone? Do you think you can prevent me from doing as I wish?” She drew herself up to her full height, filled with the righteous indignation of a royal elf wronged. “You are nothing but a ranger, Cassian, You have no authority over my actions.”
“Nothing but a Ranger?” Cassian glared at her. “Am I not your friend?”
“W-what-?” she spluttered. “Of-of course, you’re my friend, I mean-”
“Then, as your friend,” he spoke firmly, slowly, his manner unchanged by her outburst, “I demand to know what mad scheme is in your head, Leasha?”
“I don’t know what you mean-”
“Do you intend to throw off the crown is that it?”
“What? No? I mean that is to say…”
“Then what, Leasha? What am I to tell your aunt? The Kingdom? You send me back to face the baying teeth of the council while you-” he stammered himself to a close, shook his head then lowered his voice further, “while you chase your pleasures.”
“What? Cassian? No-”
“Do not dare to deny it, Leasha. By Dragon’s Blood, I’ve known you long enough. Do you not think I can see your intentions? You paw at her constantly, I daren’t leave you two alone.”
She stared at him defiantly. “I never took you for a prude Cassian! Why now? Why, after all this time, do you suddenly step in? Why do you suddenly decide that the Princess of Meadowvale must be chaste? That royalty must be-be… what? Above reproach? Why worry so? It is no longer your role to prevent stains upon my reputation.”
He laughed bitterly. “A woman such as Breanna could only raise your reputation.”
She stared at him, agog for a moment, she wanted to reprimand the insult but realised she could only agree. “Then… I don’t – I don’t understand, Cass. You know I can’t go back to Meadowvale and sit this out while others fight. I have to stay.”
“Did it ever cross your mind, that perhaps this is not about you.”
She stared at him trying to fathom his meaning. He had pulled her aside to talk to her, accusing her of betraying her kingdom and now he was saying this isn’t about her. “Don’t talk in riddles, Cass.”
He shook his head again, a slow disappointed shake as if she had failed in a basic lesson. “You are a Queen in waiting, Leasha. Your people will need a leader now more than ever But instead, you choose to pursue Breanna as if everyone that crosses your path is placed there for your pleasure. For your games.”
She caught his eye and turned to see Breanna deep in conversation with Mim and Broc, as they all said their farewells to Koax. “Are you in love with her?” she asked carefully, not really wanting to hear the answer.
But Cassian laughed. “And would it matter to you if I were?”
She looked back at him, of course, it would matter. Of course, she would take his feelings into consideration, of course, she would. But the lie wouldn’t come to her lips as easily as it did to her mind, and she was silent for a moment too long.
“Leasha!” he growled her name in exasperation, “you really are the worst kind of-of….”
She shifted uncomfortably and looked to the ground, “Look, Cass, if you really are in love with one another, then I’ll step aside… I mean it… I-I will.”
“You wouldn’t, Leasha. I don’t know why you bother saying such a thing. But I consider her a very dear friend. And that is exactly why I don’t want to abandon her to be chewed up and spat out by the likes of you.”
“Cassian! I would never-” she spluttered unable to fathom the words to defend herself.
He looked down at her with his eyebrows raised so high they might have taken flight. “Oh, you wouldn’t? You wouldn’t what, Leasha?”
“Well, for a start-I mean, I wouldn’t- I would never-”
“You wouldn’t shower her with affection? Tell her she was the most wonderful creature in existence? Break down all of her vulnerabilities, until she worshipped the ground that you walked upon? Swoop in, scoop her up into a whirlwind of passion, and then, just as she depends on you utterly and completely for soul and purpose, you get bored and throw her back down never to even so much as a look in her direction again. You wouldn’t do that?”
She opened her mouth to protest, closed it again, and looked away from his sharp green accusing eyes. “She isn’t like the others,” she whispered but her words were a weak protest.
He nodded. “How can I leave you with her, knowing what you are like?”
Leasha looked up at him angry at his saintly condemnation. “So you don’t trust me?”
“I trust you Leasha, I trust you to do exactly what you have always done. Exactly what it is in your nature to do.”
“Breanna then, do you not trust her? Trust her judgement?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I trust her heart. But I do not trust her judgement. She grows in confidence but her judgement still tells her to think the best of others and the least of herself. You will hurt her. Badly.”
“I’d never hurt her.”
He smiled and shook his head. The worst of his condemnation was out in the open and it seemed he had calmed, his words were rueful. “Intention and consequence are rarely aligned. Especially with you.”
Her heart sank within her and all argument and retort seeped away. He was right. Perhaps she should go with him. Return to Meadowvale but even as she thought it her body contracted, her chest felt tight and her clothes constrained her, she struggled for air. She needed to be free. She needed to be away from court and, now that she had found her, she needed to be by Breanna’s side. The thought of leaving her. Walking away, seeing her eyes for the last time feeling the pull on her heart as they took each step further and further in opposite directions….
No. She couldn’t do it.
She choked on her own breath and the tightness within her burst out in a gasp. Her eyes watered. She turned from Cassian, she didn’t want him to think she was using tears to alter his mind.
“I am not going with you.” She said the words firmly, knowing with every inch of herself that he would have to bind her and carry her if he was to get her home.
“Leasha, you need to understand the choice you are making-”
“Of course, I understand!”
“Do you?” The reproach was gone from his voice and there was the soothing tone of the friend who had always cared for her, always seen that she made her way out of the worst kind of trouble. “On one side there is your Kingdom, your duty, the people you were born to serve, and on the other side… a fickle heart.”
Her jaw tightened and she had to fight down angry tears. How dare he? How dare he place this choice so brutally before her? He acted as though she were already Queen, as though her people were suffering in her absence when Evaline was a better Queen than she could ever hope to be. But a part of her knew that she was somehow at a crossroads that would forever alter her fate, and there was only one path she could take. “I am not leaving her side. Fight me if you will, Cass, but I will not go with you.” Her hand drifted toward her bow.
He sighed and nodded slowly. “I will not stand in your way,” he spread his hands and shrugged, “you have made your decision.”
“Then why even-”
“Because I had hoped,” he rolled his eyes, “although I admit it was a futile hope, I had hoped to awaken some kind of moral compass within you.”
A laugh burst from her and her hand snapped up to contain it. “I apologise…” she giggled, “but a ‘moral compass’, Cass? Are you my priest now?”
He laughed. “Listen, just… I will find a way to deal with your aunt but…” he shook his head as if trying to find the words and failing himself, “ If you do not love Breanna, then leave her be. But if you do love her, if you really love her heart and soul, flaws and fire, then…”
He nodded to himself and shrugged at her. “Then leave her be.”
“Cass? Then how am I-”
“Exactly Leasha. ‘How am I to get this?’, ‘How am I to win that?’. It is always your first thought. Let someone else be your first thought for once. Stop pursuing her. If she wishes it, then wait for her to come to you.”
Leasha scoffed. “Have you met her?”
His face hardened immediately. “I have, Leasha. But now I wonder; have you?”
Her mouth dropped open but there was little chance of retort as Cassian shook his head at her one last time and barged past heading back to the others. Leaving Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Meadowvale to stand on her own, proud, indignant, and suddenly ashamed.