The melodic voice of a woman drifted through the castle. It was a lazy Sunday, the air was humid and the sounds of the sea were restful.
In the courtyard two men were sparring, with two young children watching intently. A contrast to the peaceful atmosphere.
“You’re getting better” the younger man teased, defending himself with ease.
The wooden practice sword seemed to be an extension of his arm, his form was almost perfect.
The older man laughed good naturedly. He was clumsy, unused to the weight of a sword. He was tall, regal and a quick learner.
“Grandfather,” the little girl’s voice called over the noise ” I thought the King wasn’t allowed to fight?”
Her face was troubled.
“He isn’t king anymore, dummy” the crown prince scoffed.
She flushed, her brother thought that he was so much better than her just because he was older.
“I’m not a dummy, you’re a dummy!” She defended.
“Don’t look away!” Their grandfather commanded.
They both looked back at the dueling pair, watching intently.
“A true leader never looks away” he puffed, tired of all the exertion.
Taking advantage of his opponent’s distraction, the younger man knocked the former king down, winning the fight.
“Ah, good game commander.” The old man commended, standing up and dusting himself off.
The commander bowed and picked up the fallen sword.
“Why does a true leader never look away?” the little girl asked her grandfather when he sat down beside them in the shade.
“Don’t ask stupid questions Nova!” her brother snapped.
Nova’s elfin little face screwed up angrily.
“Just because you’re fifteen Max, doesn’t mean you can be so mean!”
" Careful Nova, you need to be more careful with your emotions” her grandfather chided, laying a hand on her soft brown curls.
“And you grandson, she’s your little sister. It’s your first and foremost duty to protect her.” Max frowned, ashamed.
“Now, a good leader must never look away, because he must know everything. He must be able to be strong enough to see all sights and make a decision based on what he sees. It weakens you when you have to rely on someone else’s senses” he explained.
The two nodded dutifully, not really understanding.
“Why can’t I also learn to fight?” Prince Maxim burst out, clearly agitated.
“It’s law” Nova supplied helpfully.
Max rolled his eyes. How was he supposed to take care of her when she was so annoying?
“It’s a stupid law!” he said angrily.
“No,” said his grandfather “We’re peacekeepers. And our king must be a peaceful man, a man who has learned the art of war can never truly be at peace. A kingdom reflects what kind of man the king is.”
“That’s stupid! When I’m king I’ll change the law. Peace is boring!” The prince said confidently.
“Peace is good,” Nova said with a childish innocence, “people don’t die.”
Their grandfather chuckled at them and leaned against the palm tree.
The courtyard was a beautiful garden situated in the middle of the castle. The former queen had planted it when they had just been married. He missed her.
" You can do whatever you want when you’re my age, Maxim. When you abdicate the throne and let your son rule.”
Max scowled. “Never! When I’m king, I’ll die king!”
Grandfather just smiled. ” Go ask your mother to sing a lullaby, I’m going to take a nap and you two are disturbing me.”
Nova pouted, she loved spending time with her grandfather. But he was man who was obeyed without question.
“Come Nova, we can take a shortcut” Max offered in an attempt to be nice.
“I’ll race you!” She challenged impishly, running off.
Max groaned but followed. She had a headstart and made it down the corridor in record time. She rejoiced when she got to their mother’s room first. Max was a second behind, but her hand tugged on the handle first. Her victory was cut short when the door wouldn’t open.
She turned to him in confusion. “Come on, we’ll go the other way,” she said.
Max shook his head “No, we can’t. Someone might see us.”
“There’s no one around! And listen, she isn’t singing. Grandfather wants her to sing!”
Max looked around cautiously. She was right. Grandfather was in a good mood, and his good moods always lasted when mama sang.
She had a unique voice. She had the rare gift of being able to change her voice to make it sound different. Sometimes it sounded like five people singing.
She was known as the Songbird of the Known Kingdoms. People from all over the world came to hear her sing.
She loved to sing, so it was odd that she was quiet now. And the door was locked. Max pushed aside the uneasy feeling and made a decision that he regretted for the rest of his life. He nodded.
Nova needed no further encouragement, she raced off to the nearest alcove. The entire castle was connected through a series of tunnels known only to the Royal family and trusted servants.
The seaside castle paradise had often been under attack. As a result, the pair had been able to navigate the tunnels as soon as they could walk.
This particular tunnel was short, and she pushed a trapdoor open, suddenly appearing behind the screen that her mother dressed behind.
“Get out!” Her mother yelled.
It took a few seconds to realize that she wasn’t being yelled at. There was someone else in the room.
Max, who had appeared behind her, managed to grab her around the waist and slapped his hand over her mouth, stifling her scream. Between the panels of the wooden screen, they had a clear view of the room.
The luxurious apartment was trashed. The Queen’s personal guards had been tied up, and were forced into a kneeling position next to the queen herself.
There were three strangers in the room, all dressed as servants. Two of them were holding the queen down.
She was struggling, her golden curls that had been inherited by her son, were ripped out of their usual elegant style. Her dress was torn from struggling. She was a fighter.
“Let me go!” she commanded, her voice rough.
A tall, pale man stood in front of her, the bottom half of his face covered by a cloth to obscure his identity.
“You shouldn’t have run, Rosa.” he cooed softly.
“I escaped you once, I’ll do it again” she hissed, kicking at his face.
He seemed amused at her efforts. He pulled out a scarf, his hands so burned and scarred that they looked deformed. She went still.
“No, please, I have children!” she pleaded.
He shrugged carelessly. The guards tried shouting through the rags that covered their mouths.
“They’ll live,” he said.
In one unstoppable motion, he twisted the scarf around her neck and pulled. The Songbird queen fought for breath and Nova did too. She felt herself being pulled back into the tunnel, her screams muffled by Max’s hand as he dragged his sister to safety.
She was his first and foremost responsibility. His focus was on getting her out. His eyes trained ahead, away from the horrors behind him.
She saw everything. Her eyes were frozen in terror; she never once turned her head.
True leaders don’t look away.