CHAPTER 26 - Of a Winter Palace

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Author's note: There will be many characters in this chapter, I'd suggest referring to the image attached above to remember their Houses and Realms.

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I walked carefully, concealed behind a black woolen cloak, a black tunic and a black headscarf that covered my face. Treading slowly through the cold streets buzzing with shopkeepers and enthusiastic pedestrians, I kept a wary glance around me. Being on the watchlist of two royals - Una's mother and Prince Nova, I needed to be careful to ensure that I wasn't being followed.

With a heavy heart, I replayed my last conversation with Serena. She had found me sneaking out of the chambers, after our work hours. I was about to go the dress shop at the Winter Gala's outskirts, to get the stuffy cloak, when she had stopped me.

"You know, we can always leave here and go back home," she said with a stoic face.

"And will that change things?" I asked startled but not letting my relief show. She did care a little for me.

"People forget quickly. You... You have landed yourself in a big mess, haven't you?"

I looked at her properly this time, noticing her worry disguised as anger. I wanted to hug her, hug my only friend. But I needed to keep her at a distance more than ever. The irony was not lost on me.

"To be very clear, Serena, I did not land myself into anything. The mess knocked on my door. You of all people should know that." I could feel my voice rising as my words echoed in the chamber.

"Eleni, I know, but..."

I cut her off, "But what? Guess, you're just jealous of me, that I am having all the fun, while you are stuck here in the same old job. And let me tell you, Serena, this is not an adventure, not a fairytale, where you meet handsome princes and go off running in the meadows, fight enemies and rule the world," I glared at her, drawling, "This is my damned life."

The hurt in her eyes pained me. But I stayed my ground, reminding myself that this was for the best.

"Have a great life, then," she said with a sardonic smile, after staring at me for a while.

I did not look back as I shut the door with a bang after me.

The cold winter breeze became even more prominent as I climbed the slope, shaking my head as Serena's face dissolved into the chilling winter. All the other palaces, were a part of embassies, and not the actual palaces, but what I was about to see was a real palace. The palace of House of Pisces, Lady Orella's home. The thought excited me a little but it was clouded by the terror of what I was about to do.

Being a Corresponder had its uses, as I had recently started to understand. I had sneaked into the storage room of our building and found a map of the Winter Realm. Memorizing all the routes, to enter the Grand Palace, a vague outline of a plan had birthed in my mind. I placed a hand on my wildly beating heart, not knowing if it was beating out of fear or excitement.

The only problem was my poor sense of direction.

I felt grateful for Una as I kept climbing the hilly road, trying my best to hide in the dark shadows of pine trees. If it weren't for the rigorous training that she was giving me, I might have been struggling the steep climb, a little too much. Magic needs focus, and focus is achieved by strengthening both the mind and body, were her exact words. She made me workout, meditate and then ask me to release my powers. I was physically sound but mentally - it was all crumbling.

My boots dragged in the rising level of snow, that glinted in the afterglow of sunset, making me struggle. I would've appreciated the beauty, if the circumstances were different.

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