I couldn’t believe this was all in our honor. The banquet hall was packed with people.
I glanced to my left where King Radon sat at the head of the table, looking much more kingly now that his reddish-blond hair was trimmed and clean. Who would have thought that I’d be sitting at the king’s side, eating with him at a banquet held to celebrate me? I wished my father were here to see this.
The banquet wasn’t only celebrating me of course. Ethan and Faiza sat next to me and Tallis was across from me, followed by Rachael, then Samel who, besides looking a little pale, was back to his usually self. I stole a quick look at his hand lying on the table next to his plate to see if it had miraculously started moving after a week of being motionless, even though I knew the doctors said the feeling wouldn’t come back. I may have carried the Hashna Stone safely to the castle and taken a foolishly-brave swing at Ryker, but Samel was the one who’d sacrificed the most.
King Radon stood and the room quieted even before he spoke.
“We are here to celebrate those who have bravely fought for the King of Minaria when he could not fight for himself. They have uncovered truth, traveled far, fought hard, and given much to ensure that the rightful king sat on Minaria’s throne.”
The king paused as the people applauded, then continued, “Faiza. Ethan. For your service to Minaria, what would you ask as a reward?”
Faiza and Ethan looked at each other, caught off guard at the question. Faiza spoke. “I want the law about nabbing orphans to be changed.”
King Radon’s lips curved upward in a smile. “Everything that was done while I was away from the throne will be revoked. Since this hardly counts as a gift, is there anything else?”
Ethan spoke this time. “We would like to have some houses built, if it’s not too much to ask.”
King Radon raised an eyebrow.
Faiza explained. “They’re for some kids. They don’t have any.”
Of course that was all Faiza and Ethan would ask for. Faiza may have complained a bit when we were selected to bring the Hashna Stone to the castle, but it was only because she didn’t want to leave the Foxes. Even now when she had the chance to be compensated for time she’d been away from them, all she wanted to do was make sure they were taken care of.
I rubbed my fingers on the cloth napkin in front of me, wondering what I should ask for. I didn’t have a group of kids I was looking after. Would asking something for myself be selfish?
The king gave his consent, then addressed Tallis. “To you, I give a choice of any position in my court. Name it and it is yours.”
Tallis bowed his head humbly. “All I would ask, Highness, is to be reinstated to my position as ambassador to Hashna.”
“I would gladly give Hashna their ambassador back.” King Radon smiled. “He’s been too long away already.” Then he looked at Rachael. “Is that your request also?”
My stomach fell. Hashna was much further away than Faiza’s and Ethan’s Foxes. If she went back to Hashna, who knows how long it would be before I would see her again.
“Actually,” Rachael said, “I’d like to stay here and help train the orphans Bayvlad brought in.”
I glanced at Tallis, wondering what he thought of Rachael’s idea. He didn’t look surprised at all, and I guessed they’d talked about it before now.
“I would be honored to have your help,” King Radon said. “And in a few years, I may have you put in Bayvlad’s position.”
Rachael dipped her head. “Thank you, your highness.” When she lifted her head, she grinned at me, like I’d been the one responsible for the offer. I was surprised by how much warmth spread through me.
Then I knew what I would ask the king for. It would be something that was both for me and others.
“Samel,” King Radon said. The dwarf was munching on a piece of cake topped with strawberries and grapes. His mouth was so full, his cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk’s. Anyone else would find it embarrassing to have the attention of the room focused on them at that moment, but Samel simply kept chewing and gave the king a salute with his left hand.
“What is it you would ask for a reward?” King Radon asked with a slight smile.
Samel swallowed loudly. “I’ve already got it. The alliance is back in place between Hashna and Minaria, and Tallis is coming back. I couldn’t ask for more than that.” Then he tapped his chin. “Though you could order Rachael to come back with us.” He winked at Rachael.
King Radon’s half smile turned into a full one. “I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with just Tallis. But I can offer you more than the alliance as a reward.” He motioned to a butler beside a door who opened it and let in three servants carrying miniatures sets of clothing: tiny shirts, jackets, trousers, and shoes.
“I heard you were having trouble finding clothing in your size,” the king said. Samel hopped out of his chair and went to examine the clothes, running his hands over the cloth, trying on a jacket. Some of the nobles at the table laughed. Others looked embarrassed or annoyed at his lack of propriety. But King Radon didn’t seem to mind.
When Samel was finished reveling, he stopped by King Radon’s chair and raised his right arm, hand hanging limp at the top. He caught himself and let it fall to his side with a shrug. He grinned like a mischievous child caught nabbing a cookie. “Some habits take a while to get rid of.”
He began to lift his good hand, but King Radon took hold of Samel’s limp one and shook it.
“Minaria is in your debit for what you did,” King Radon said, keeping Samel’s hand in his. “If you ever need anything, know that you have a friend in Minaria’s king.”
As Samel came back to his seat he was smiling, but his eyes looked moist. Maybe it was just the candle light.
Next, King Radon’s attention was directed at me. “Dalan, without you the Hashna Stone would still be lost, and Minaria’s throne still being held by a pretend king. All of Minaria is grateful for your bravery. And I am grateful for your loyalty.”
I ducked my head, feeling a bit awkward, but hoping it would look like the respectful bow that Rachael and her father gave earlier.
“What would you ask?”
“I would like to train in the army,” I said, firmly. “I want to serve Minaria like my father did.”
My dream to become a soldier like my father had faded when they began nabbing orphans, but now that they would no longer be doing that, I could join the army like I’d always wanted. It was an honorable request. I wasn’t asking for items or a title, but to protect Minaria and serve its king.
Besides, training as a soldier would mean staying at the castle with Rachael.
King Radon nodded. “I couldn’t have asked for a better soldier than your father. I know you will make him proud.” He motioned to the butler at the door, who again opened it. There was only one servant that came through this time, holding something out in front of him. “If you are to be in the army, you will need a sword.”
As the servant approached, I saw the pommel of the sword in his arms.
It was the face of a wolf.
I reached out and touched it, tracing the eyes and nose as I did so many times when I was a child. Then I took it, holding on to it like it was my father come back from the dead.
I looked up to give my thanks to King Radon, but my throat was too tight. I realized my eyes were moist and I blinked. I hoped everyone watching would think it was just the candlelight.
Once the gifts were given, everyone headed to the ballroom, but I’d never been much of a dancer, so I slipped outside to one of the gardens.
I stood looking over the neatly trimmed plants and fingered the wolf on my father’s sword at my side. It didn’t comfort me as much as I thought it would.
After wanting so badly to get rid of the Hashna Stone, I was surprised at how empty I felt now that it was gone. It wasn’t that I missed its familiar weight around my neck or the power that it gave. It was the togetherness that the stone brought. Our little group came together because of it, and now that it was in its rightful place, there was nothing to keep us together anymore. Since my father died, I hadn’t felt close to anyone until I met them. Now, we would go our separate ways.
Rachael stepped out and stood beside me.
At least she wasn’t leaving. That thought chased away my sudden gloom. Then I realized I was staring at her and smiling like an idiot, so I quickly thought of something to say.
“You don’t want to dance?” I asked.
“I don’t know how.” She shrugged.
“A girl? Not know how to dance?” I gave her an exaggerated, disbelieving look.
She rolled her eyes. “I was taller than all the men in the nation by the time I was eight. Who was I supposed to dance with?”
“There’s plenty of tall men around now.”
“Are you asking me to dance?”
“Well no…” My cheeks heated. “I can’t exactly dance either.”
“Oh, so you were trying to get me to leave.”
“No. I don’t want… I didn’t mean…”
She laughed. “I’m just kidding.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes.
“So, do you?” Her eyebrows rose over her blue eyes.
“Do I what?”
“Want to dance.”
“How do we dance if neither of us know how?”
She shrugged. “Just go with it.” She took my hand and my heart sped up.
Just as we were getting into position, the door opened behind us and we both jumped like rabbits. Faiza, Ethan, and Samel spilled out into the night.
“You two aren’t dancers either huh?” asked Faiza.
We looked at each other, then burst out laughed, thinking that we were about to dance.
“Someone’s had too much of the wine.” Faiza shook her head.
“I wouldn’t mind dancing,” Samel said, “if all the girls weren’t such giants.”
“You’ll be back with your midget friends soon,” Faiza said, but there was a smile on her lips.
“And will I be glad to not have to worry about being stepped on,” Samel said. “You Minarians need to look down more often.”
“I’ll just be glad to get away from you,” Faiza said. “You’re worse than all the kids at our camp combined.” Then the smile slipped from her face and she looked out into the darkness. “I hope the boogers are still there and didn’t starve to death while we were gone.”
“With you whipping them into shape?” I said. “They’ll be fine. What I can’t see is you as head mistress of an orphanage.”
She whirled on me like I’d suggested that would be a fat old maid with seven cats. “Why would I be head of an orphanage?”
“They’re building you a house, aren’t they? For orphans. And you and Ethan are the leaders.”
She lifted her chin. “It won’t be an orphanage. It will be run just like it was in the woods. They’re free to come and go as they want.”
“We’ll just be in rooms with beds now,” said Ethan.
“Just like the woods huh?” I asked, thinking about the pledge, and how much trouble I’d be in if the stone I’d found had been anything less than the Hashna Stone. “I’m glad I’m getting out now then.”
Ethan grinned and Faiza gave me a look. “I can’t help that you’re a scoundrel that breaks your pledge.” A flicker of a smile played on her mouth.
There was a small lull in the conversation where everyone seemed to realize that this was our last night together.
“What does your father think of you staying?” I asked Rachael, thinking of how long she’d been separated from him already.
She sighed. “He wants me to come with him, but we talked about it. I’ll still get to see him. He comes to the castle once a year for an annual meeting, and I can visit him. He understands that there is nothing for me in Hashna.”
“Thank you very much!” huffed Samel.
Rachael ruffed his hair. “Besides you of course.”
Samel smoothed his hair back into place with his left hand, his right hand dangling by his side. “I won’t miss you doing that.” He grinned.
“I will,” she said. “I’ll miss all of you.”
Ethan looked at the ground and Faiza cleared her throat, clearly uncomfortable.
“I guess I’ll miss you all too,” Samel said. “But not nearly as much as I miss this.” He held up his hand. Well, he held up his arm. His hand wasn’t there.
We all startled at the sight of his handless arm. Then he laughed and his hand appeared, hanging limply on top of his arm. He’d made just part of him disappear. I didn’t know he could do that.
“It won’t be the same without all of you to scare.”
“That’s something I won’t miss,” Faiza said dryly.
I would. I was going to miss Samel’s pranks and his cheeky grin. I was going to miss Ethan’s easygoing way and Faiza’s sarcasm.
They were my family. And now we were splitting up.
But maybe that was how it was with families.
I thought of my father and fingered the wolf on his sword. Maybe he wasn’t here right now, but that didn’t mean he ever stopped being my father. Space between people didn’t mean they stopped being who they were. It didn’t mean they stopped being connected to you.
We might each go our separate ways, but we’d always remember each other. We may not always get along, but we’d be there for each other. And like Rachael and her father, family may separate for a while, but they never stay apart forever.
Next (A thank you to all involved)
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