The next morning, the sun hadn't even risen when Opaline was unhappily torn from her sleep by the warmth of her lover leaving her bed. "Animus..."
Animus, who had already pulled on his pants, sat back down on his side of the bed in order to put on his socks and his boots. "I'm sorry, Opaline, but the sun will soon rise and you know my boys will be awake by then."
Slightly more awake, she propped her head up with her arm and watched him as he put on one sock and then the other. "Can't you get Mave or Thane to train them today?" she softly pleaded, wanting him to come back to bed.
The dark blond young man chuckled at his lover's soft insistence. "Looks as if I will have to be the reasonable one this morning."
She pouted playfully, crawling down the bed to sit behind him, leaning against his back with her arms wrapped securely around his waist. "I'm reasonable," she proclaimed, kissing his bare shoulder. "Now, come to bed."
"You are so spoiled."
"Are too." Turning around, Animus pulled Opaline into a long kiss, burying his hand into her dark tresses while keeping her close. Eventually, he reluctantly dragged himself away, smiling as Opaline continued to savor the kiss lazily, her eyes closed and her lips slightly pursed. "As much as I love you, I don't think it would be wise for me to stay any longer. If Leona were to walk in on us-"
"-it would be disastrous," she finished his sentence, concurring with him. "There is no other choice."
With her words, Animus returned to putting his boots on and then grabbed his blue tunic from where it had been tossed, putting that on as well. Opaline looked on quietly, her brown eyes following his every movement.
"The boys are staying with me today, right?"
"Right. I have to meet with the village priests and priestesses this afternoon at the Clan Sanctuary."
"Well, I'd better get going then, before Thane plays another practical joke on the boys."
"You'd better. I'll have Merrick down there in an hour for breakfast."
He nodded and bent down over the bed to quickly steal a kiss from her. "Have a good morning."
"You too." Opaline managed a smile, but she could feel the dread welling within her. She didn't want him to leave at all, but she knew that it wasn't possible for him to stay. Everything they were doing was wrong, according to custom.
And as he opened the door and snuck out into the hall silently, she simply wished that she didn't always have to be left alone in the dark.
"A little late, aren't we?"
Animus stopped creeping down the dark hall and winced at Thane's scolding voice. He was only a step away from his room, too! He turned around to face the young prince. "What are you doing up right now?" he accused, shifting the subject from himself.
"I was going to draw on Mave's face." In the shadows, the young man held up one of the pencils used to draw the animals upon their necks. He waved it for Animus to see. "I've been picking on Merrick for awhile. I figured it was someone else's turn." Thane spoke with such an obvious tone that Animus didn't doubt his motives. Besides, his reputation preceded him in the realm of practical jokes. "What are you doing up so early, in the same clothes from last night?"
The forceful implication in the young man's tone didn't escape the blond and he smirked slightly. "I got drunk and fell asleep in the stables. One of the guard dogs licked me awake and I came back here with a very painful headache."
"You are such a liar."
"A liar that can sentence you to an entire week of stables duty."
Thane's eyes widened in horror at the prospect. He had done enough stables duty to last him a lifetime when he was in training. No way was he going to get himself stables duty again when we was a soldier. "I relent." He quickly retreated from his pursuit of Animus' whereabouts. "You didn't have to threaten me," he grumbled under his breath.
The older man grinned at Thane, satisfied his threat produced the wanted reaction. "Sometimes, with you Thane, it's the only way." He clapped the soldier on the back, ushering him forward. "Come on. Let's go wake up the boys."
As the two of them began to walk past Animus' room toward the large room where all the boys of the training regiment slept and ate, Animus took a second look at the pencil Thane carried with him. "You do realize that that color would've never worked on Mave, right?"
Opaline failed to stifle another yawn as she examined herself in the mirror, worrying Leona, who was in her room with her.
"Did you sleep well last night, High Priestess?" the handmaiden asked in concern, pausing to glance at Opaline while she made the bed.
The brunette smiled privately to herself while smoothing out the long skirt of her dark green dress. "Last night was a long night. I slept well, there just wasn't much time for sleeping after the feast was through."
"Well, perhaps that tea I brought for you will rejuvenate you."
Moving over to her dresser, Opaline picked up her silver brush, running it through her hair to remove the tangles. "It certainly smells good," she replied, the soft fragrance of the cup of tea sitting on the corner of her dresser wafting into her nostrils. "I will certainly be needing that today. Being back at the Sanctuary always tends to be a busy time for me; the younger clan members are always so eager to talk to me and I never have quite enough energy to keep up with their fast pace." She chuckled to herself, setting the brush down. "I'm getting old."
Leona laughed at the preposterous idea. "You are not getting old, High Priestess. If you can recall, I'm older than you."
"But you're still as sharp as ever, Leona! My memory and stamina simply seem to fade with time," Opaline insisted, taking a sip from her tea.
The redheaded woman shook her head, a smile gracing her lips. "I had best make sure that Merrick is ready to go to breakfast with the regiment." She changed the subject entirely, heading toward the door.
Opaline's eyes glittered with mirth as she recognized Leona's swift dodging of the topic. "Thank you," she acknowledged, as the door shut behind her handmaiden of eight years.
Taking her tea, Opaline walked over to the window in her room and pushed one of the panes open, allowing the cool morning air to touch her face. There, she quietly finished her tea, musing upon the events that the day held for her, until a knock came to her door.
"High Priestess? We've come to escort you to the Clan Sanctuary at the orders of General Animus."
She smiled happily, recognizing the announcing voice. Setting her finished cup of tea aside, she rushed to the door and opened it to find Captain Mave and the young Prince Thane standing before her. "Mave!" she cried gleefully, pulling the dark-skinned man into a hug. "Oh, I haven't seen you in so long!"
Mave hugged her back tightly. "It is so good to see you again, High Priestess."
As they pulled away from the hug, Opaline swatted the younger man. "Stop being so formal!" she scolded him playfully. "It's Opaline, not 'High Priestess.' I refuse to have you calling me that; you were Ephane's closest friend, and thus one of mine."
"Fine then. Opaline." Mave ducked his head shyly.
Opaline nodded in satisfaction, then looked beyond Mave at the dark-haired Thane. "Now, what did you do to earn the pleasure of escorting me, my Prince?"
Thane grinned as he had known he wouldn't be able to escape the interrogation. "What makes you think that I didn't come to simply see you, Opaline?" he teased lightly, knowing she would never buy it. Opaline had taken him under her wing after his mother's passing and knew him quite well, especially how he was always managing to stir up trouble, but always in a fun-loving manner.
Retrieving her green-hooded cloak from where she had laid it out on a chair, the high priestess approached the young soldier and stared him down. "You don't get to call me Opaline, my dearest Prince. You will hold with tradition and treat me with respect; it is 'High Priestess' to you."
Thane picked up on the hint of teasing in her voice and nodded his head, playing along. "Yes, High Priestess," he replied properly and then answered her former question. "Animus caught me trying to draw on Mave's face this morning."
"With what?" Opaline looked a bit confused as she shut the door to the room behind her.
As they proceeded to walk down the hall toward the grand staircase, Mave piped up to answer for his friend, a knowing smirk on his lips. "He decided that drawing on my face with a black skin pencil would be funny."
Opaline giggled, tugging her cloak closely around her. "You do realize that wouldn't have shown up on Mave's face very well, right?"
"I think you're the tenth person to tell me that so far this morning." Thane also laughed at his own momentary stupidity, running a hand through his messy black hair.
Mave glanced over at Thane, an evil glint in his eyes. "Well, we have to take every chance we can to make fun of you, my Prince. After all, once you ascend to king, if we laugh at you, you could have us executed!"
"Merrick, over here!"
Merrick entered the training regiment quarters to see all the boys just starting their breakfasts, except for one who was waving madly at him. The Merrick grinned and waved back at his friend, heading in his direction.
"You're late," Van remarked, chomping into his roll of fresh bread while reaching for an apple from the bowl at the center of the table. Merrick slid into the seat next to him at the end of the bench. "General Animus already gave us his blessings."
"Well, he'll just have to take it up with my mother if he's angry," Merrick replied, taking the apple that Van handed to him and biting into it hungrily.
The boy to the right of Van leaned in conspiratorially. "Actually, he ran right back into his room once he we started eating," Ryden whispered to the two other boys. His dark eyes glittered with daring curiosity. "We should go spy on him."
Merrick nearly choked on the second bite of his apple at the idea, but perhaps he should've expected Ryden's suggestion. Ryden, Van, and him were very close as they had been the only three boys accepted into the training regiment the year they entered. Ryden was a bit like Thane, in that he was always getting into trouble, but a lot of the time it was just because of his natural curiosity to want to know everything. Van, however, was a bit more reserved and sarcastic, although he did have his moments of childish abandon; the training had yet to beat it out of him.
"Are you trying to be stupid, or does that come naturally?"
"The General was anxious this morning, and if I was stupid, I wouldn't have noticed that." Ryden purposely glared at Van. "I just want to know why."
"You could just ask him," Merrick pointed out, much to Ryden's chagrin.
"This coming from his apprentice."
"He doesn't tell me everything!" the young Baliton argued insistently.
"Well, he should," Van commented, "considering you are the son of the brilliant Ephane."
Merrick rolled his eyes at his friend. The same friend who could easily beat him when it came to naming all the Wildzords by heart. "You're the smart one, Van. Your mother has been telling you legends of Ephane again, hasn't she?"
Van grinned at the knowing tone of Merrick's voice. "I can't even mention your name without her going on a tirade about General Ephane. It's always the same every seasonal recess."
Ryden listened to their conversation half-heartedly as he eyed the ajar door to Animus' room that was only twenty steps away from where they sat. He stared for a little bit, before standing up and finally deciding. "I'm going."
Merrick and Van, both surprised by his sudden movement, tried to grab the sleeve of his tunic to stop him, but failed. "Come back!" Merrick hissed, loud enough for Ryden to hear over the other chattering boys that filled the room.
"No!" Ryden retorted, continuing toward the door that separated the quarters of the training regiment from General Animus' room.
Glancing back at Van for a moment, they came to a silent consensus and quickly caught up with Ryden crouched at the foot of the door, seen only by the few other boys who sat near them at their table.
Merrick had seen Animus' room before - he'd been in it before - but seeing it from that little crack at that moment was an entirely different view. Ryden seemed to have a similar opinion. "What is he doing?" he whispered, slightly in awe as well as confused.
From their view, they could see Animus sitting at his dresser running his hand along something laying flat on the honey-colored wood. Though he was practically right next to the barely open door, the blond man hardly noticed the three young trainees crowded at the small crack, struggling to see. His attention was completely focused on the object and he looked rather deep in thought.
"Can you see it?" Van whispered, not having to explain what exactly "it" was.
"Not really," Ryden answered, squirming to get a better view. He was shoved into the corner and had a hard time seeing everything that was happening within the room.
However, Merrick said nothing as he was stunned into silence by what he was able to see that his friends obviously couldn't: the elusive item; Animus had lifted the object off the dresser and held it delicately in his hands, examining it. The only reason Merrick could identify the object was because he had seen one similar to it in his mother's chest where she kept all of her prized possessions.
Cradled in Animus' hands was a beautiful gold necklace with a large diamond-shaped blue gemstone positioned at the center.
One that looked suspiciously like the engagement necklace that Merrick's father had given to his mother eight years earlier.
Together, Opaline, Mave, and Thane wandered through the sleepy city of Tribute, the population slowly awakening to the beautifully sunny morning.
Walking the dirt streets, they saw a few crazy roosters running about the rooftops crowing loudly. Dogs lying outside before their owners' houses yawned widely as the noise startled them from their peaceful sleep. In a few houses, the windows were already pushed open to greet the new day, while the three could smell the beginnings of breakfast wafting from other houses. A select few were already out and about and when they ran into the high priestess, the Animarian army captain, and the crowned prince they made sure to acknowledge them properly with a slight bow of the head.
"Have you ever been to the Sanctuary, my Prince?" Opaline questioned curiously, trying to recall herself if he indeed had.
"Yes, but only once; I had ten years when you brought my training regiment here," he replied, vaguely remembering his childhood impressions of the wondrous place. "When I was younger, my mother had always wanted to take me to the Sanctuary, but I was always busy training or working with my father at the time."
"You've been deprived," Mave stated with a chuckle, only half-serious. "The Wildzord Clan Sanctuary is one of the most beautiful places in all of Animaria. You couldn't have possibly experienced it completely, having only seen it once."
"I don't doubt it," Thane returned, looking to his friend with a small smile. "Shayla lives there and when she was younger, all she would do every seasonal recess was babble about the new places she had seen and been to within the Sanctuary." He remembered the times when his bubbly sister would pull him aside and regale him for hours about her training under High Priest Vanault and Sanctuary Priestess Rai.
"And why haven't you returned to the Sanctuary since I brought you?" Opaline questioned in a scolding manner, pushing back a strand of hair that had escaped the confines of her loose leather binding.
"I don't know," he replied somewhat quickly, and the woman could hear the prince withholding something in the tone of his voice. She didn't dare push it, however, as Thane would tell her if he wanted her to know. Besides, his attention had been diverted elsewhere.
Following the dark-haired soldier's gaze to the ever-open front gates of the Clan Sanctuary, a smile slipped onto the brunette's lips and grew. "Rai," she softly voiced, her smile communicating just how happy she was to see the young woman.
"High Priestess Opaline." The petite redhead walked forward to meet Opaline and the two women hugged tightly as the two soldiers looked on. "It is so good to see you again, even if it isn't for pleasure."
The older woman had stepped back, but continued to lightly clasp Rai's arms. "It has been awhile. I've been so busy with training the soldiers-"
"I quite understand," she replied with a grin. "The Fawns keep the High Priest and I incredibly busy."
"Not busy enough to keep you from waiting here for me."
Rai nodded, glancing beyond her friend toward the two escorts. "Captain Mave, Prince Thane, it is good of you to visit our clan today." She greeted them appropriately, bowing her head slightly.
"Just doing our job by the hand of General Animus," Thane smoothly replied, already enraptured by the beautiful redhead and trying ever so hard to impress her. Mave snickered quietly at his young friend's aggressiveness.
The sanctuary priestess took note of the prince's behavior and blushed lightly, biting her lip in slight embarrassment. "Shall we go in?" She turned to face Opaline once more to hide her face from the young man. "The Fawns are anticipating your arrival."
"I'm sure they are," Opaline acknowledged, leading the other three forward as she began to walk into the grassy courtyard of the Sanctuary and braced herself for the onslaught of curious children.
Animus glanced away from watching the training regiment of youthful boys sparring their afternoon away in the spacious courtyard. He looked down into the clear blue eyes of his apprentice. "Yes, Merrick?"
The boy shifted uneasily under the older man's gaze. Ever since he had seen the engagement necklace earlier that morning, Merrick hadn't been able to think about anything else. Just the night before he had been willing to claim Animus as his father, but with the new information that he had, the young Baliton boy couldn't help feeling somewhat protective of the invasion of his family - at the replacement of his legendary father who could no longer defend his place at his mother's side.
"Merrick, did you want to say something to me?"
The dark-haired trainee opened, then closed his mouth, trying to find the appropriate question to ask. He struggled, but he decided not to back down; he had to know.
"Do you truly love my mother?"
The young general - who had been drinking from a cup of water drawn from the bucket sitting nearby against the stable wall - nearly spit out his mouth of water. Restraining himself from drawing attention, the dark blond forcefully swallowed.
Just as he was about to berate his lover's son for asking the random question, Animus noted the honesty held within Merrick's features and found himself unable to deny the boy his answer. He imagined there must have been a good reason behind asking and he didn't totally mind answering the one person who should probably know his true feelings other that Opaline herself; anything he felt or did for her was bound to affect Merrick as well.
Silently, Animus nodded his head in affirmation. "I love her, Merrick. I love your mother very much."
"Am I interrupting anything, General?"
Animus twisted around to see Mave standing behind him. "Not really," he replied, pretty sure that the man towering over him hadn't heard anything. Animus stood up from his kneeling position and gently nudged Merrick off. "Go on. Get back to your sparring."
As they both watched Merrick run off to join Van and Ryden across the courtyard, Mave asked, "So, did the Prince return yet?"
"Thane?" Animus reiterated, confused by the implications of Mave's tone. "No, he hasn't returned, though I was expecting him earlier. I thought he was with you."
"He was with me until I left the Sanctuary this morning to do the usual rounds at the castle and city posts." A huge smirk sat upon the normally solemn man's lips as he grabbed a cup off the side of the water bucket and drew himself some water.
"You left him at the Sanctuary?"
"Per his and the High Priestess' insistence."
"I had a feeling I shouldn't have sent him with you this morning."
Tugging lightly as his hot dark blue jerkin, Mave shook his head. "Don't worry about it, General. He wasn't stirring up too much trouble."
Mave's teasing voice did nothing to ease Animus' growing frustrations with the royal-blooded soldier. "If King Parn knew about his escapades-"
"He's trying to woo the Sanctuary Priestess."
Animus stopped his tirade and blinked, turning to directly face his captain. "Rai?"
Mave nodded his head yet again, drinking from his water cup.
The Animarian general almost burst out laughing, quite a change from his boiling anger of only mere moments before. "I cannot wait to talk to Thane when he gets back from the Sanctuary!"
"Sanctuary Priestess Rai was High Priestess Opaline's closest friend when they were Fawns; the two are still the best of friends. Rai tends to appear more timid in comparison to the High Priestess, but when you pull her aside, she is a powerful force to be reckoned with!"
The older man chuckled, understanding. "The Prince has little chance of winning her over."
"No chance whatsoever."
"I find it hard to believe that you've never been here before."
"So do I," Thane sighed pleasantly, watching Sanctuary Priestess Rai approach him. Catching himself a moment later with his slip up, he turned to look out into the courtyard and the rest of the Sanctuary from their prime position on one of the many second floor balconies of the West Wing. "I suppose I always relied on the High Priestess for spiritual guidance to the Wildzords. I never thought to seek them out myself."
Rai leaned forward against the stone railing of the balcony, noticing Opaline as she left the older Fawns - who had been practicing their sorcery with Vanault - for her meeting with the village priests and priestesses. A majority of men and women who served Animaria's outlying villages were already waiting in the Gathering Hall across the way on the East Wing's second floor. "Spoiled royalty," she remarked, a smirk present upon her soft-featured face.
Earlier that morning, after all the formalities of greetings between the Fawns, High Priestess Opaline, and Prince Thane had concluded, the young prince had asked for permission to stay and explore the Clan Sanctuary. Both Mave and Opaline realized the impossibility of that request, but it was the busy brunette beauty that decided Thane could explore the Sanctuary so long as under the watch of one of the Clan's brethren. Of course, she nominated Rai for the gift of escorting the prince as she had noticed Thane's rather persistent attempts to flirt with her friend.
So, once Mave left, Rai began to take Thane around the Sanctuary grounds, making sure he got in every last sight while rebuffing his continuous and rather cute attempts at garnering her adoration and attention. Though he was very handsome and someone that she certainly wanted to learn more about, the priestess wouldn't let herself fall victim to his beguiling charm too quickly.
Meanwhile, the royal soldier found himself falling more and more smitten with this woman who was nothing like she had first appeared to be. She had spirit and strength, and she hid behind them to conceal her innermost self. Her numerous rejections pushed him further, making him determined to win her over - no matter what.
"Not spoiled," he amended insistently, "simply busy. The Royal Prince of Animaria tends to be quite busy with his duties; there isn't much time to visit everything on a whim."
"That hardly seems like you, from what I've seen. This visit of yours to see all of the Sanctuary was spontaneous, one I assume to be based on a whim."
He glanced over at her as she continued to watch the Fawns below very closely while carrying on their conversation. "No. Not on a whim. Something I should've done a long time ago." The words were whispered ever so lightly, only allowing himself to hear them. Quickly, Thane blinked back the tears that had started to form in his dark eyes, actually thankful for the fact that Rai's attention was drawn on something other than him.
Taking in a deep breath and expelling it, he fully recomposed himself and gave Rai the rebuttal she had been waiting to hear.
"Unless you call yourself a whim, Sanctuary Priestess Rai, then you might want to withdraw that assumption of yours..."
The afternoon passed quickly into early dusk and by that time, the meeting of the High Priestess and the village priests and priestesses had finished and they all began to file out of the Gathering Hall. Giving Opaline their respectful good-byes, they all headed down to the Deerzord Sanctuary for their final pilgrimage before returning to their homes and villages.
The lone woman stayed behind until all of the holy men and women had left the hall, then headed in the opposite direction in order to find Thane so that she might return safely to Castle of Tribute. She had to be under some guard because the last time she left the Clan Sanctuary without an escort, Ephane yelled at her for being ignorant and young; never again did she venture outside the castle or the Sanctuary alone.
As she wandered down the second floor halls in the East Wing of her former home, she regarded the paintings that adorned the walls with a fond reverence; they triggered so many treasured memories.
How High Priest Kiran - her departed mentor - used to tantalize her with the minute details of beauty, down to the exact colorings of the paintings. How she used to spend hours on end before the paintings when she became a priestess, drowning in the artistic depictions of her beloved Wildzords. How she missed them sometimes as she walked down the halls of the castle alone. So much to remember, never enough time.
Falling out of her reverie and noticing that she was only a few doors away from Vanault's room, Opaline decided to stop by her old friend's to see if he was there. Perhaps they could talk for a bit before she had to leave.
Within a few moments, she found herself standing before the door that she knew to be the High Priest's as she once had lived there herself. Raising her fist, she knocked on the ornately carved door and waited patiently until a voice from within beckoned, "Come in."
Turning the silver knob, the high priestess slowly pushed the door open to enter the room. As she shut the door behind her, she found Vanault hunched over his desk in the corner beside his bed, intensely working and his writing flying rapidly across the paper. "Did I come at a bad time?"
At the sound of Opaline's familiar voice, Vanault's head shot up from his work, a bit surprised to see her there. "What are you doing here?" he queried, standing up from his desk that was overflowing with papers and notes. "I thought you would have returned to Castle of Tribute already."
The slightly younger brunette bridged the gap between them and stood toe-to-toe with her close friend, flashing a bright smile up at him. "Prince Thane is somewhere with Rai; I was looking for them when I decided to come visit you. That isn't a crime, is it?"
Vanault reflected her contagious smile. How radiant she appeared in her simplistic happiness! Was she smiling because of him? Did he make her happy? "No, it isn't," he acknowledged with a nod, gesturing for Opaline to take his seat at the desk while he grabbed another chair and sat down. "How did the meeting go?"
"Like every year," she relayed, quickly glancing out the window to glimpse the slowly waning moon. "Priya tells me she had a promising student for the Clan, but the child is already quite past the year of formal acceptance."
"What year is he?"
"She has nearly twelve years."
He leaned forward, placing his arms on his knees and clasping his hands. "Too old. She's probably formed habits."
Opaline nodded in agreement. "This year's set of Yearlings look to be more male-dominated."
"Mmm. That's good. The past few years have been dominated by the entrance of female Fawns," he mused, staring at the cold stone floor as he thought back in his mind.
Amused by his serious face, she grinned. Always thinking, her dear Vanault! How she longed for the days of their childhood when he would laugh and play with wild abandon, not a care in the world. It seemed he had too many worries as an adult. "No thanks to me," she teased, pulling him out of his mind.
"No thanks to you," he retorted with a chuckle. She knew exactly what to say to draw him out of his inner self. "Are you feeling better?"
The high priestess was confused for a moment; then she realized he was referring to the night before and her near blowup at Animus. "I am, thank you for asking. Animus groveled and I let him back into my good grace."
Surprised, Vanault arched an eyebrow questioningly at her. "So soon?"
"I had a guilty conscience," she replied, removing the green cloak she had on and laying it on the back of her chair.
"You? Guilty conscience?" He was clearly teasing her by then, a smirk sliding across his lips. "I didn't realize you had a conscience!"
"You are a terrible, terrible man, Vanault." Resorting to the way and tactics of her childhood, Opaline stuck her tongue out at the High Priest of the Wildzord Clan while giving him a proper shove.
Eyes playfully wide at her movements, he stabilized himself on the chair and then leaned forward toward her, his nose nearly touching hers. "Is that a challenge?"
"What if it is? What then, High Priest?" She continued on with their game, figuring it wasn't harmful at all, but figuring quite wrong.
Vanault could barely hear her words as his senses had become overwhelmed by everything that embodied beautiful Opaline. Her warm brown eyes stared through his clear blue eyes. Her waves of hair - released from their binding long ago - cascaded from the crown of her head and a few strands gently brushed the side of his face. The smell of her - earthly, fresh, sweet, and clean - tinged his nostrils as he breathed it in. Her soft, supple, light lips were only so far away and he could-
The only warning Opaline had to his intentions was the slight softening of his sturdy gaze, and then her friend's lips were upon hers, kissing her, and coaxing her to return his motions. Quickly, she jumped away from him and backed up against the desk, staring at him in utter horror.
"What was that?!"
The man - much more emboldened by the kiss he stole - stood up from his seat and moved to take her by the shoulders. He wanted to tell her everything - everything he had hidden for so long. He wanted her to know so that perhaps she could love him for it all. "Opaline, listen to me-"
She struggled in his grip, trying to break free and run from him. To where, she had no idea. Just away from him. "Vanault, what did you just do-"
"I love you, Opaline. I've loved you since we were children. Everything I have done has been for you - for your love."
She blinked at him, completely stunned. She allowed the first question she could think of to tumble from her lips. Granted, she knew it was a stupid question, but she asked it nonetheless.
"What of the Wildzords? Don't you love them?!"
"I DO!" he retorted fiercely, staring her straight in the eye. "Only because you taught me to love them..."
By then, Opaline was so distraught that she was crying, the tears creating new trails down her cheeks. What had happened? Why had he kissed her? Why did he proclaim his love? She couldn't love him...she didn't love him! Animus...oh, Animus...she needed Animus!
Vanault's grip on her loosened and she wrenched herself away from him, running toward the door until she stumbled against the wall. "You can't love me, Vanault," she hoarsely whispered, one hand propping her up against the wall and the other at her side, clenching and unclenching. "You can't."
"But Opaline, I-"
"YOU CAN'T!" she screamed, her watery brown eyes going wide and wild.
Without another thought to what lay ahead of her, Opaline forced herself away from the wall and madly dashed from the High Priest's room, nothing but an image of green.
"Animus! Animus! Animus is here!"
As the young man rode up to the front gates of the large villa that served as his family's home, he smiled softly at the chorus of voices that belonged to his two younger sisters. In the darkness, he squinted to see the two girls in the open front window, grinning giddily at the arrival of their older brother.
One of the stable hands opened the gate for him, allowing him and his beloved mare - Fauna - onto the villa grounds just outside the Tribute city walls. "Welcome home, General Animus," he greeted, taking a hold of the reigns as Animus slid off the dark horse's back.
"Thank you," he returned, scanning his eyes over the estate to reacquaint themselves with the grounds. Even in the cool darkness of the evening, his childhood home held many familiar shapes that were easily identifiable to his careful eye. And to think the he couldn't stand the villa as a child; it didn't seem possible. "Has my sister arrived yet?"
The older man stopped leading Fauna toward the stables and faced the general once more. "Yes, Lady Ariene has arrived already. She's inside waiting with Lord Daros."
"In the study?"
"In the study, General."
With that knowledge, Animus pushed forward to the front door and took hold of the large iron handle, pushing it open and entering the warm home. Mere seconds after his feet had hit the marble floor of the entry hall, two flashes of color bowled him over - the smaller one fire red and the larger one a sky blue.
Though knocked to the ground by his younger sisters - Herine and Cerasyn - Animus couldn't help but chuckle at their excitement over his arrival. "If only my soldiers were as happy to see me as you two are!"
"You're our brother! Of course we want to see you!" Cerasyn giggled, sitting on the floor beside her brother with her pretty red dress spread out around her.
Standing behind her young sister, Herine nodded her head in affirmation, causing her tight blonde curls to bounce every which way. "Besides, we don't have to take orders from you," she pointed out, making sure to place the extra emphasis on the "we".
The soldier smirked at his middle sister's statement. She was tough and headstrong and of course, that's what he loved most about her. Of all his family, he felt he had the most in common with Herine even though thirteen years separated them. "Oh yes," he played along, agreeing in an exaggerated tone of compliance, "I could never order the two of you around."
"Uh-huh!" Cerasyn chirped, jumping onto her feet as Animus climbed to his own from the sprawled position he had taken up on the floor. "Father and Ariene are in the study waiting for you. Are you going to stay for dinner, Animus?"
Hoisting her up into his arms and carrying her around on his hip, he kissed her cheek in a brotherly manner. "Of course, I will!" he assured the child of five years, whose eager questioning continually warmed his heart. As the three of them began walking down the hall toward their father's study, Animus turned his attentions to Herine, who led them. "And how are you, Herine?"
"Quite fine, thank you," she replied politely, turning for a moment to flash a quick smile at her brother. "Very happy to see you after so long."
"Only two seasons, Herine. Not too long, I don't think."
"Long enough," she answered, lifting the skirt of her lace blue dress slightly to ascend the staircase that took them to the second floor. "With you and Ariene gone almost all of the time, the villa feels empty sometimes. But I'm always happy to see you both return."
"Me too!" Cerasyn added, looping her arms around Animus' neck and hugging him tightly.
Animus hugged his youngest sister closer in response to her clinginess. Only having a year when their mother died in a riding accident, Cerasyn never quite comprehended the loss of her mother. Instead, she latched on to everyone in her sight and loved them with her entire being. It was her gift, her way of helping their family recover after their mother's passing.
"How are your studies with Father, Herine?"
He could hear how pleased she was in her voice. "Father is the best teacher ever. He's currently teaching me about how our society is shaped by our devotion to the Wildzords." They finished with the stairs and approached the doors to the grand study. "It's fascinating; you have an interesting role in everything."
The general flashed back for a moment to his beloved Opaline and just how his role in their society had brought her to him. "I know I do; I live it everyday," he agreed, the double meaning of his words lost on his innocent sister.
Herine pushed open the doors to the study and together they entered, alerting Ariene and Daros to their presence and pulling them out of the discussion they were having in the middle of the room amongst a circle of chairs.
"Animus!" Ariene jumped up from her seat and happily ran to her older brother.
Setting Cerasyn down on the ground, Animus opened his arms and embraced his oldest sister who was only four years his junior. The young blonde woman kissed him on the cheek and hugged him close. "Can you believe that we live in the same castle and yet, we never see one another?" she giggled into his ear.
"We are both very busy people," he replied honestly, pulling away from the hug. "Time seems to constrain us."
"It seems to constrain you to the point where you cannot even visit your own father."
Animus looked past Ariene at Daros, who was aside with Herine and Cerasyn, and ducked his head. "It seems so," he returned, a small grin present upon his lips. He moved forward and embraced his father. "It is good to see you again, Father."
"The same to you, my General son," the lord of the Aerlyn family teased lightly, clapping his son on the back.
"You're late," Ariene pointed out succinctly, her brother turning to face her. "I was worried."
Daros echoed his eldest daughter's concerns. "I have to admit, I was a bit surprised to receive your message earlier this afternoon as well. And then with you being late-"
"I'm fine," Animus reassured his family, gently patting Cerasyn's head as she stood close to him. "I was waiting for the High Priestess to return safely to the castle before I left; when I left, she still hadn't arrived."
"High Priestess Opaline will be fine." Daros returned the assurance to his son, noting the worried tone in the young man's voice. "She is a bright and capable woman."
"I know," he acknowledged, following the suit of his sister, who had began to move back toward the group of chairs. He sat down in one of the high-backed chairs, helping Cerasyn into his lap. "It is my job to worry about her, however, so I cannot help it."
"You two are partners," Herine reiterated, taking a seat on the beautifully embroidered divan next to her father's favorite armchair. She obviously enjoyed flaunting her newfound understanding of the Animarian hierarchy. "She helps you and you help her."
Animus secretly smiled at the girl's comment. How close to the truth she was.
Brushing a long blonde strand of hair from her eyes, Ariene peered curiously at her brother, who had yet to declare his intentions. "Is everything alright, Animus? You usually aren't one for spontaneity, especially with meetings - everything must be planned out in advance."
As his sister got to the heart of the matter, the young general fidgeted slightly at being put on the spot. "I wanted to speak with you all about Mother's engagement necklace."
Daros' eyes widened at his son's words. There was only one reason Animus would dare bring up the piece of jewelry that had been passed down by the women of the Aerlyn family for generations. But that was impossible. How could he be considering marriage? He wasn't courting any woman, was he? It had been more that four years since he had been to Tribute and Animarian royal court, so perhaps him not knowing was caused by being out of the loop, but he doubted that his son would keep something so important from him.
Ariene's mouth would've hung open had she not been raised to be proper and not gawk. At twenty-one years, Animus' younger sister had served as her family's representative to the Animarian royal court since her mother's death four years prior. She prided herself on knowing everything there was to know about the members of the royal court. Yet, she had failed to know that her brother was in the midst of courting someone in the same castle she lived in? Somehow, Ariene knew something odd was going on.
Herine gauged her father and her older sister's reactions. Two versions of disbelief. She was also a little cynical. Her brother wasn't the type who hid things and lied. Why would he hide a courtship? What was so wrong with falling in love with someone?
"Is she pretty?"
Four pairs of startled eyes turned on the youngest Aerlyn who broke the silence with her innocent question.
Cerasyn turned her face up to stare into Animus' face. "Is she pretty?" she queried again, a bit more confident and insistent. "I hope she's pretty because then maybe she can teach me to be pretty too."
Animus grinned slowly at the seemingly random line of questioning. "Yes," he replied softly, kissing the top of his sister's forehead. "She is quite pretty; I'm sure she would like you."
"Good." She gave a curt nod of what he interpreted to be her approval - as even at her year she understood the implications of bringing up the necklace - and jumped from the man's lap, running from the room to leave the rest of her family to ponder what she had just done.
After a moment, Herine awkwardly stood up and arranged her dress before looking to Daros. "I will go watch her," she simply stated, following in her younger sister's tracks and leaving the study to the adults.
"Yes, Father?" He raised his head; he had been staring at his hands.
"Who is she?"
"I didn't think this would be as simple as Cerasyn made it out to be."
"Who is she, Brother?"
"The woman I love, Sister."
"That much I could figure out."
"You are the one who called this meeting, and yet, you are hesitant to discuss the topic we were all brought here to speak of." Daros sat forward in his seat, hoping to evoke a response from the young man.
When he didn't succeed and Animus remained silent and contemplative, Ariene took her turn. "Animus, why have you been hiding this from us? Why come to us only now? You could have eloped if you didn't want to say anything."
Animus let out a single soft scoff at his sister's words and narrowed his eyes. "In my position?" he voiced, his voice skeptical. "That was never an option, Ariene. You know that."
"Then why did you hide your courtship with her from us? You obviously must have courted her before having come to the decision that you were going to present the engagement necklace to her."
"I hid because-"
Before he could say anything more in his defense, Cerasyn and Herine suddenly burst into the room, full of agitation. "Animus! There's a man downstairs for you!" Herine announced, a bit frantic. "He says it is important!"
Upset by the interruption and not so much his sisters, Animus' pent up frustration popped like a fragile bubble. "Tell him to leave, Herine! I have a right to be alone with my family!" he growled, gripping the arm of the chair tightly.
Stunned slightly, but not too much by the outburst, Herine continued to give him more information. "It's Captain Mave, Animus."
"Mave?" he whispered under his breath, confused. Why would Mave come to his family home?
"He said it had something to do with the High Priestess."
At the mention of his High Priestess, Animus jumped up from his seat and literally ran out of the study. "I'm sorry, Father, Ariene. I have to go," he apologized fairly quickly, before brushing past his younger sisters and disappearing down the hall.
Not about to let him go easily, Ariene followed her brother as he skipped down the stairs two by two.
Almost ripping the front door open, Animus stepped out into the darkness to see Mave standing beside his auburn brown stallion, Marron. To the left of Marron was Fauna, patiently awaiting her master's arrival, ready to leave at a moment's notice. "I had the stable hand bring Fauna out," the captain remarked, making a small motion toward the horse.
"What happened to High Priestess Opaline, Mave?"
"Prince Thane just recently returned to Castle of Tribute from the Wildzord Sanctuary alone. He said he looked for her all over the Sanctuary with Rai's help, but they couldn't find her; apparently, some Does saw her leaving by herself."
Bewilderment flooded Animus' eyes and dread filled the pit of his stomach. Where could she be? She knew better than to go off alone! What could've happened to her?! "Did you search the castle?"
Mave nodded. "Thane and I searched it thoroughly without arousing suspicion or worries, like you would've ordered."
The entire time, Ariene stood in the doorway of the villa watching the conversation take place between her brother and the captain of his army. Animus seemed possessed by fear at the mention of the High Priestess' missing status - something that was totally unbefitting of him as her brother and as the General of the Animarian Army.
"Alright." Swallowing hard, Animus gained a hold over his wild emotions. "Let's go back to the castle and we'll work it out from there."
Captain Mave simply gave his general another nod and the two of them proceeded to mount their horses, riding off into the darkening night with the waning moon lighting their way.
Opaline stared at the luminescent moon that was high up in the midnight blue sky above her head, as she slowly stumbled through the castle gardens. The coolness of the autumn night had begun to set in, and without her cloak, she could feel it acutely. With her arms wrapped around herself for warmth, she didn't dare make a single sound and the only indication of her mental state was found in the tears that continuously slipped down her cheeks.
He violated her. He kissed her. He touched her. He proclaimed his love for her.
It was all wrong. So very wrong.
Vanault was her childhood friend, and other than Rai, her closest friend. She didn't see him as a lover or anything more than fellow priest and friend, but he obviously saw her as more. And she had no one to blame other than herself.
She had known of his affections toward her for a long time; perhaps not consciously, but subconsciously, she had been very aware. It was her denial that made her disregard his feelings. However, because of her carelessness, his feelings had risen up to confront her in the worst manner possible.
The pretenses would still be kept.
The honorifics would still be spoken. They would still be fellow priest and priestess. She would still refer to him with praise in passing and he would continue to obey her like the beloved high priestess that she was. Nothing would change.
Nothing could change.
She wouldn't allow it to. Change brought forth the unknown, tradition kept everything from changing. That was why she loved tradition. It kept things from spinning out of control.
"I'm such a hypocrite."
She loved tradition and hated change. And yet, she was the one who seemed to spur change on, to challenge it to happen. She was challenging all tradition in the name of her love for Animus. She wanted to be with him. So, she broke the five-year mourning period and fell into bed with the Animarian general while supposedly mourning the loss of the general prior to him, her husband.
"I'm no better than Vanault."
Finding her way out of the gardens, Opaline walked around the outside of the castle and into the courtyard. As quietly as humanly possible, she entered the stables and went through them, crossing into the armory and finally reaching the door that led into the castle.
Due to the lateness of the night, the torches in the halls had already been dimmed and Opaline counted herself very lucky; there was no way that she wanted a servant or soldier to run into her in her condition.
Without having to look around through squinted vision, the high priestess knew exactly where she was in the castle and where she was going. From where she leaned against the closed armory door behind her, she dashed across the empty hall and counted five doors before she stopped.
Turning the knob of the door she had stopped in front of, she slowly entered the room, careful to not make a sound and cause a stir. Once inside the room, she again slowly shut the entrance behind her and sighed heavily in relief when she was finished; there was a reason she was a priestess and not a soldier.
Finally feeling that she was somewhat safe from the outside world and the troubles that she faced earlier that night, the brunette collapsed onto the large bed before her, crawling underneath the covers and allowing her exhaustion to overwhelm her.
Animus blinked his bleary eyes, determined to not fall asleep as Thane, Mave, and him talked in low whispers among the horses of the stables. The two lower-ranking men had just returned from their third full search of the city and proceeded to report their findings.
"We found nothing, General."
Animus stared directly at Thane, his arms crossed tightly across his chest. "Nothing?"
The prince - no matter how royal his blood - shrunk back from Animus' harshly cynical voice. Stepping away from the general, he approached his horse's stall and gave him a friendly stroke along the neck. "We looked all over, General Animus. There was no sign of her and no one had seemed to have seen her."
When the blond turned to Mave for a second opinion, he backed up the young soldier's words. "We couldn't find her, General."
"Maybe she's already back," Thane piped up in a hopeful manner. "She could be sleeping happily in her room!"
"I already checked there."
"I think what the Prince is trying it say is that we've done all we can for tonight." Mave quickly interrupted the conversation before it escalated into an argument over who was right and who was wrong. "We need to get some sleep and approach this all with a fresh perspective tomorrow."
Animus was tempted to rally against Mave's suggestion and insist that they search high and low throughout the night, but before he did, he noticed how strongly his emotions for Opaline had affected his judgment and performance; it wasn't only the High Priestess of Animaria who was missing, but also the woman he loved. "You're right." He conceded to his captain, rubbing wearily at his tired, hazel eyes. "We're tired and the three of us alone cannot accomplish anything. If the High Priestess returns by morning, then we will have nothing to worry about, but if she doesn't, we will have to inform King Parn and the rest of the soldiers so that they may help in the search."
There was a momentary silence between the three men until Thane broke it once more.
"General, I'm sorry about-"
"It wasn't your fault," Animus assured, knowing already what the young man was trying to apologize for. "The High Priestess has her own mind; she chose to leave the Sanctuary alone. She knew exactly what she was doing."
The only problem was that Animus had no idea what she was doing.
Vanault lay on his side, awake in bed, staring out his open window at the beautiful, silvery moon. The same moon - he was sure - that Opaline was looking upon; her strong presence continued to tickle his senses, long after her departure from the room earlier that night.
Her forest green cloak that she had left behind still hung on the back of his chair.
He knew that he should've felt insulted by her frantic flight after his declaration of love, but he didn't. For the first time in his life, he felt this immense weight lifted off his heart. He could love freely. It was no longer a hidden tension between him and her.
Even her name sounded light. Free. She freed him. Freed him of his loneliness and of his fears. She made everything better in his world. Even when he could only sense her - not even see her - everything around his seemed so much more vivid, much more real.
He shifted to lie on his back, his arms crossed behind his head. As he gazed upwards into the darkness, Vanault recalled her reaction to his kiss; she had been confused and horrified.
He understood her reaction. She was still mourning Ephane; it could only be expected. However, even that obstacle would soon fade away with the king's announcement. Five years had already come and passed. Her freedom was only a formality. His chance to win her heart was soon to come.
"I will make your love mine, Opaline. From the moment I saw you, I knew we were destiny."
Entering his room later that night, Animus sighed in exhaustion as he closed the door behind him and leaned against it. After Thane and Mave left him at the stables to get some rest, Animus had stayed behind in the stables and groomed Fauna for quite a bit. While brushing his mare's hair, he realized the ridiculousness of what he was doing, but honestly, it was all he could do from going insane with worry. Eventually, he managed to put down the brush and bring himself to finally go to his room and try to get some sleep.
Balancing on one foot and then the other, Animus pulled off his boots and set them aside before walking through the darkness to stand before his dresser. He drew his face close to the mirror and examined his fatigued features, blinking in hopes to relieve some of the stress on his eyes that were still adjusting to the dimness of the room. He then proceeded to pull off his uniform dark blue jerkin outlined in silver and his long-sleeve blue undershirt, readying to retire to his bed.
"I'm glad you finally came."
Startled by the new voice in his room, Animus spun around and looked to where the origin of the voice lay in his bed, his weariness reflected exactly in her eyes. "Opaline!" he cried softly, running over to the bed and taking her into his arms. He devoured her hungrily in a kiss of desperation and relief.
A huge smile alighted his lips as he pulled away from her. Holding her face in his hands, the man examined every part of her face, drinking her in beauty that he had thought he'd lost. Opaline echoed his smile, but it was only an echo and not the true thing; she still felt like she was being torn apart in two from the inside out. "Animus," she whispered hesitantly. She was looking into his eyes, hoping that he would read what she knew was there so she wouldn't have to say too much.
"Yes?" he replied, sighing happily. His joy was short-lived however, because of the raw pain in her deep, dark brown eyes that he finally saw. Pushing back her messy curls that had fallen into her face, Animus gazed at her in concern. "What happened, Opaline? Tell me what happened."
At his soft and coaxing voice, the high priestess had to bite her bottom lip to keep from crying yet again. She shook her head in response. She couldn't talk about what happened. It was hard. Perhaps, too hard.
"Try, Opaline. Please. I won't know what happened if you don't tell me. Why did you leave the Sanctuary alone?" He paused, caressing her cheek gently with his callused hand. "Where have you been?"
She struggled to find the words to express herself, the haze of sleep still about her mind as well as the want to simply just not remember at all. "It...it was earlier tonight," she began, lifting her trembling hand to his bare shoulder in an effort to still it. "I went to see Vanault. And...and, he kissed me."
"He did what?!"
"It's not his fault!" Opaline quickly insisted, despite her lover's dubious look. "I knew he had feelings for me and I never told him to leave me alone; I led him to believe that I could possibly love him!"
By then, Opaline's entire body was shaking and fear flooded into his eyes at her adverse reaction to remembering what happened; he didn't need to know anymore. He could see how much the incident had emotionally affected her. He took her into his arms and crushed her to him, rocking her and rubbing her back in a soothing rhythm in hopes of calming her shocked nerves. "Everything will be alright, Opaline," he whispered into her ear. "You did nothing wrong-"
Something snapped inside the brunette at Animus' reassuring words. "NO!" She broke free of his embrace, jumping - and nearly falling - from the bed. She scrambled to the wall of stone on the other side of the room. "I did everything wrong! I'm a bad influence on Merrick! I'm dirty, vile, disgusting; ALL I DO IS BAD!"
Alarmed by her screaming and aware of the unwanted attention she could be drawing, the young man rushed to her side and clasped his hand over her mouth. "Opaline, you must be quiet!" he hissed, not so much scolding, but in nervousness.
She nodded her head slightly, tears pouring mercilessly down her cheeks and her eyes wide in fear of being found out.
They remained quiet for several minutes, hoping that the silence wasn't broken by a knocking at the door. Thankfully, the knock never came and eventually, Animus felt it safe and carefully removed his hand from her mouth.
In the moments of silence, Opaline's anguish wore down to the point where she was able to contain it and control it. Using the back of her hands, she wiped the streaks of tears from her reddened face. "I'm sorry," she breathed to him as they sat together on the cold floor, recovering from their scare. "I just couldn't-"
"I know," he hushed her, taking her into his arms once more. "I know that there are times when you think that this is wrong - when you think we are wrong. But that's not true. You know just as well as I do that this is right; we are right."
Peacefully, she listened to his voice rumble within him, overshadowing the beating of his heart. "I'm supposed to be a mourning widow."
"What do you mean?"
Animus knew he was treading on thin ice by telling her what he was about to, but she would soon find out even if he didn't say anything. "Vanault is trying to claim you."
Startled by his announcement, she pulled away from him and sat up to look him in the face. "What do you mean by claiming me?"
"This morning - after the boys had been awakened - I went down to give my formal morning greeting to King Parn. I did and when I left the king, the High Priest entered and took my place. I know it was wrong of me to eavesdrop, but I was quite curious as to why he was seeing King Parn so early. So I listened and heard him talking to the king about you and how he wanted to court you." He paused in his speech, disgusted by the idea of Vanault pawing his lover. "After awhile, I couldn't listen anymore and left."
Fright bubbled within Opaline at the prospects of being courted once again. It would make it even harder to conceal her relationship with Animus if she had another man after her. "Why didn't you send me a message? Warned me?"
"Why must the Falconzord and Tigerzord be separated by the earth and sky?" he rhetorically questioned. "There was nothing I could possibly do without alerting others. Sending a written message to you in the middle of the day would seem somewhat odd, don't you think? And of course, the note would've passed through his hands before they reached yours, Opaline."
She nodded gradually, understanding the motivations behind his actions. "Can we go to sleep? I just don't want to think anymore; I am in the Wildzords' hands now."
The smallest of smiles touched Animus' face and he stood up, helping her up in the process. He led her over to the bed and lifted the covers for her to climb back into the warmth. He crawled in after her and laid down next her, lacing his arm around her waist to keep her close.
"I love you, Animus."
"I know, as I you. Now, just sleep and rest."