Nathaniel narrowed his eyes at the closing door. He never expected to be reprimanded about manners by his own younger brother. The King was just as stupefied. Only after a few seconds did he regain his calm. "Where were we?"
Nathaniel cut right to the case. "My betrothed vanished. Out of the innermost ring. What do you know about it?"
"Vanished?", the King rubbed his chin. "Impossible. She is strictly guarded, in the shadows as well as in the open. If she went somewhere else after the party last night, it should've been reported."
"That is why I am here." Though Nathaniel had his own guards, only Pete and Dorian were allowed to enter this ring. And Sam was the only 'shadow' he had taken with him. None of them knew Katherine's location, though they were searching for her now with all their might. Pete was especially affected, since the Lady vanished under his care. "You surely don't know where she is?"
"Would I hide it if I knew?", the King asked back and furrowed his brows. "Even if she is not in her chambers, she can only be inside this ring. Every carriage gets checked before it enters or exits this ring."
"Every carriage?", Nathaniel repeated. "I remember there being some exceptions. The Queen, for example."
"Oh, but I don't think Layla would do that. What would she gain by - Stop! Nathaniel! You promised me you wouldn't go searching for her!" But the folding doors had already closed behind Nathaniel's back. The King sighed and pressed his temples. He knew he couldn't stop Nathaniel unless he told him where Katherine really was, of which he had no idea. Looked like he needed to search for her. Hopefully he could find her before Nathaniel and his wife killed each other.
He should have directly gone to her, Nathaniel thought grimly. Who else had reason to anger him deliberately? Her warning had been clear. If he didn't leave, she would do the same to Katherine as she had done to the rabbit. Of course, it was also a perfect trap to bring him to her. He just didn't believe Katherine could be kidnapped so easily.
His steps echoed through the hallways. Suddenly, he halted. "You are still here?"
"My meeting with father wasn't over", the Crown Prince answered simply.
"Why are you following me then?" Nathaniel's impatience showed in the stiffness of his back and his stony face.
The Prince slowly walked in front of him. They had the same high, the Prince's shoulders a bit broader, his countenance darker. Despite this, he was the one that seemed more lifeless, like there was a deep apathy in the depth of his soul. His voice as tranquil as a still lake when he said: "This isn't a direction you should be going in. I wanted to kindly remind you to not stroll too far from your accommodation inside the palace."
"Mind your own business." Nathaniel narrowed his eyes dangerously. However, it didn't seem to affect the Prince.
"My mother is my business. Would you kindly - "
With no regard to the Prince's feelings, Nathaniel stepped around him. The action was very sudden, but just as sudden was the noise of something scratching against metal.
Nathaniel had narrowly deflected the Prince's ice-dagger aiming for his waist with the bracelet on his arm. When he turned with a dangerous gleam in his eyes, the guards had already reached them. For a second Nathaniel deliberated if he should punch the Prince regardless, but the latter seemed to only wait for it. The ice-dagger had vanished as the Prince had dissolved his magic. If Nathaniel so much as hurt a hair on the Emilian's head, he would be brought to trial. Which meant that he couldn't search for Katherine anymore, much less go and see the Queen.
With a sneer, Nathaniel pulled back before the guards could try to separate them. When they saw that he didn't hurt the Prince, they let him go.
"Earl", Emilian called after him, "I will take you into account if she gets unstable afterwards! Remember that!"
Nathaniel didn't answer. He wouldn't take responsibility for something that was already broken. Especially not when she was deliberately provoking him.
The aroma of roses wafted around the entrance to the flower garden, making Nathaniel halt in place. His hands balled and unfolded repeatedly. As he gazed inside, he seemed to see a shadow of the past, a blonde woman watering the flowers while praising them for their growth and beauty. She wore a deep blue dress and had a healthy glow on her cheeks that accentuated her simple prettiness to a more stunning sight. Lovely, that was the only term that suited her.
As Nathaniel took a step inside, the illusion faded. Instead, there was a servant in beige uniform, watering the flowers with mechanic movements. A wry smile formed on Nathaniel's lips. He should call himself lucky that he even got this tiny glimpse at his aunt. Not that he deserved it.
Slowly, he wandered in between the bushes, searching for the apple tree in the middle. However, he couldn't find it. Where it stood before was only a golden pavilion now, gleaming in the sun as if it wanted to burn people's eyes. Unsightly.
What change his mother had brought to the city, it seemed blasphemous that she even exerted it here, in what once was the most beloved place of his aunt. The corners of his mouth turned down grimly. There was nothing holy in front of his mother. It wouldn't surprise him anymore if she made a verdict to burn down Skadi's temples and replace them with her own figure. But why was she residing in this place instead of her old territory? It was like showing off her superiority.
Suddenly, he heard something crashing. As he looked over, he saw the water can on the ground and the back of the servant, running away as fast as she could. Obviously, she didn't want to be here when Nathaniel and the Queen clashed. Understandable, Nathaniel thought.
At the entrance to the pavilion, he took a deep breath. That was when he heard the melody. It was the soft tune of a harp, filled with longing and sadness. For a second, he was confused. Where was it coming from?
Then he saw the figure of a woman in the middle of the pavilion, her head lowered and caressing the strings as if in a trance. Her green dress rippled like the sea on the white marble floor, the gold bracelets on her caramel brown arms sometimes tinkling when she moved her hands.
Every word he wanted to say fell out of his head as he stared at his mother's back. Though apart for almost two decades, he recognized her instantly. She didn't change much outwardly. He didn't know she could play the harp. But now that he thought about it, a blurry memory resurfaced. It was buried in his earliest childhood. The sound of the harp and a woman's voice that lulled him to sleep.
He always thought it was one of the servants playing back then. Never did he think of his mother, the woman who hated him the most. But that was later. Maybe she did love him once, before all of this happened. Before she labeled him as monster.
Silently, he listened to the melody. He didn't know the song, but he could feel the emotions behind. It was a longing for the unreachable, waiting for a love that was lost and never to be found again. He could never gain this woman's love.
She must have felt the intense gaze in her back, for she suddenly turned her head. Her fingers hit the wrong string and a mismatched tone echoed in the foreboding silence.