|| RALPH ||

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Author's note : Do check the image attached in third scene. Four new royals greet us, and in the next chapter two more will. All the next chapters are connected back to back just different POVS, because no Eleni now. We are officially in the end game!

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A petrified guard informed me, when I had gathered them all in the courtroom, that he had indeed seen Eleni with Orella. My blood ran cold. Colder than Orella's Ice magic. A bone-shattering punch landed on his nose, and I regretted it instantly - wasn't his fault. The Summer guards trusted whom I trusted. But I had lost my mind.

Why would Orella risk it like that... she was a Defensor! The Throne would never choose her if she sided with Neo. Was she a slave? But... she had showed no signs of tranced hollowness. No, she knew exactly what she was doing. And it was my fault - I had suggested trusting her. I had suggested to warn her about Neo masquerading as her darling Nova. I always trusted people easily and I had myself let her in the palace where Eleni was. Lord Orlon and Doran had been skeptical about her, but I hadn't.

Well, I led Neo to Eleni myself.

A desire so immensely nerve-wrecking, gripped me hard, and I found myself walking into Lord Orlon's wine cellar. I had even forgotten that as per habit, I was supposed to pick up a bottle and run away from the shame, from the pain. From the slap. There had been no need to drown in liquor as long as Eleni was by my side. But now she was gone and it was my bloody fault. Orella better not cross paths with me. Breathe, I told myself. Three deep breaths.

You are hopeless, son!

My breath shuddered. I snaked my hands around a random wine bottle. Not strong enough; I put it back.

You are a disgrace, Ralph. How dare you talk back to me?

Whiskey - just the smell of the old bottles intoxicated me even before I picked one out.

Is this how you will fight in the Conquest, you stupid boy!

My breathing quickened. The memories crashing in like tidal waves, one after another. Merciless. Unrelenting. Suffocating. As always. Practiced, and with uncanny precision, I flipped the cork open. But... my hand shook this time, for the first time.

I had learnt not to tremble...not to show the fear... not to show the pain...to stand my ground, no matter what. Even when the lashes would become intolerable. I'd stand my ground. Not a tear. No sound. No movement. I had learnt to take all of my mother's wrath.

Just like your father, disgrace to the whole Summer Realm.

My hold tightened around the tall-necked bottle of whiskey. The urge was growing thicker. Eleni was gone because of me! Father had sent his daughter to me... the angel who fell from the stars... who resurrected my whole life in a span of mere weeks, who was ready to sacrifice her golden sundial for me. All that she did for me... and what had I done in return, dangled her like a bait for the enemy. My lips dried, throat parched, mind craving harder for the sweet oblivion.

Orella had always been a comfortable presence in my murky life. And today that friend had broken my trust. An ugly feeling rose in my chest, as the impulse to shatter something became heavy, as the childhood Ralph's cries tore through my flesh. Too much. Too many feelings. Colliding onto each other.

My head was on the verge of exploding, senses on fire, nerves straining inside my skin, throbbing and writhing. The scars on my body suddenly flickering alive, concealed under overcoats and armors. My Mind Healer would erase my most gruesome memories, but the reminders on the flesh - they stayed. Had to.

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