The dark circles under his eyes had never been pronounced. He was a haunted man – there was no uncertainty – he just always believed he had more of a grasp on his emotions. Now nightmares plagued his sleep. Not even watching his daughter dream during the restless nights could tame his quickening heartbeat. This war would destroy him.
Johnathan rested his elbows on the table as he quickly read through the debrief packets on topics to be discussed tonight at the gala. He spun the teething toy around his finger as he read. He needed more to do than this. He needed the peace she would always prevent.
Lilith sat on the stool next to him, holding earrings next to her large, emerald necklace. Johnathan remembered the cold, winter day he had bought the emerald for her. It was money down the drain now. “What?” Lilith barked; she unclasped the cover to her lipstick.
“Nothing,” he muttered. There was no reason to fight now. Cameras would just capture the tension later tonight at the gala, and then a press storm would happen. “Where’s our daughter?” Victoria was a safe topic. She would have to be.
“With the nanny, swimming.” Lilith fastened her auburn hair up with a diamond, crested clip. She ran her fingers over the silk fabric of her light, green gown. “James informed me he thinks the Russians will be there tonight.”
“Damn,” Johnathan proclaimed. As if he needed more of a challenge.
Johnathan’s assistants and Lilith’s ladies in-waiting fluttered into their bedroom. “Your Majesties,” James said, “It’s time.” And so they were off.
The arrival to the gallery was swift. They were greeted warmly by the curator. Johnathan only wished he could find some way to apologize to the balding man for the inconvenience he was bringing tonight. For the inconvenience the last five years brought him – and everyone else in the world. Once Lilith had retrieved her flowers from the elementary school girls, they were off.
The debrief took place in a large isolated area where only artificial light lived. Outdated technology incapable of being bugged or tracked were the only modern items allowed in the room. Those foolish enough to drag their cell phones into the glass containment had been forced to throw them in a bucket of water.
Ladies and gentlemen wore the garments of their cultures proudly. Men and women with all different skin colors had found their seats at the table. Some sat with an air of confidence and the smugness that reminded him of the girl. Others sat with bated breath, waiting for the setbacks the new development would bring.
Lilith glided slowly towards the head seat. Her dress scraped the carpeted floor. She ignored the guards with the intimidating weapons. With her chin held high and her broad shoulders back, she unclasped her hand as a sign of friendship and gestured to the whole room. “Please be seated.”
Johnathan took the seat to the right of his wife. As a symbol to broadcast the illusion of unification, he cupped his hand over hers. Lilith was smart enough to squeeze it back.
A general from a country Johnathan and Lilith didn’t care to learn the name of began his lecture. His presentation was sloppy, it reminded Johnathan of Victoria’s limited dialogue. It was hard to take the man seriously, until the pictures came out. The situation was every way as graphic and disgusting as he had imagined, and then so much more.
Even Lilith – with her cold persona and bullet proof walls – was having a hard time keeping her emotions in check. “How did we let it get so bad,” she whispered, mostly to herself, but the whole panel of strong and powerful individuals overheard her.
The Prime Minister of Denen, Lilith’s country, responded. “We focused on our own problems and ignored the others,” he said; his thick accent was as annoying as it was entrancing. Johnathan had forgotten how challenging it was to comprehend a true Denish accent. Lilith’s had slowly morphed more into his own.
“Why are we really here?” Johnathan knew it wasn’t his place to speak. He knew he was only present because of Lilith and how connected he was to the atrocities. He drank his water with exaggerated sips and ignored his twitching palms and the judgmental glances the dignitaries gave him.
“We have reason to believe she’s in the country.”
Johnathan dropped his cup. It smashed. Glass and water covered him. His chest clenched in panic. He felt his abs tighten. The red tie around his neck was now choking him. Without any hesitation, he ripped the tie off his throat and darted out of the room. No one chased after him.
He wandered down the hallways, admiring the golden frames and colorful sculptures scattered around the museum.
She was back. The horrible, disgusting piece of filth (no matter how much he tried to deny it when a bottle of liquor was in his hand) he loved unconditionally. She was a curse. She was his curse.
He was her cure, but she was his disease.
The King toppled over. His hands shook; he found himself hiding them in his hair.
“What happened?” His brother handed him a tissue. Prince Emmett had interrupted his distraction tour. No wonder none of his assistants darted after to chastise him. They would stick Emmett on him. The Prince’s gentle eyes filled only with worry. There was no anger or disgust at his brother’s moment of weakness. Prince Emmett was the perfect man to send after the King.
“She’s back in the country,” the King confessed to his brother after he finished retching into the toilet. He ran cool water over his face. And flicked the rest of the liquid off his palms and into the sink. His brother handed him a paper towel.
“No,” Emmett mumbled, but his eyes did not contain the same disgust and shame the King’s did. Emmett was always better at loving her. He was better at treating her with child gloves. Something King Johnathan had epically failed at.
“They’ll kill her. They have to kill her,” he told his brother, pretending his voice didn’t falter and crack every other word.
Emmett rested against the marble sink and stared at his cold reflection in the steam covered mirror. “Can’t we contact her on our own?”
“How?” Johnathan asked, “our every move is watched for our protection… from her.”
A tear dripped down Emmett’s cheek. “This isn’t fair.” He kicked the trash can.
Johnathan placed a comforting hand on Emmett’s chest. There was no sense in breaking the news to his younger brother gently. They had both seen the atrocities of war. They had seen the way love brought the three of them together, only to rip them apart like they were a piece of paper with unnecessary information on it.
“Don’t you think,” Johnathan began gently, despite his brain screaming at him to power through, “that her death may be necessary to end this?”
Emmett shook Johnathan’s hand off his back with a fire too strong to describe. His eyes were now ravenous. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you dare fail me now!” Emmett’s stubby fingers pressed against Johnathan’s cheeks with a little too much pressure. His jaw shook from the energy being transferred.
“Em,” Johnathan cautioned. Despite the illusion of togetherness both men felt, there was no way they could be truly alone. They were symbols, much too valuable to lose. Johnathan had no doubt every inch of his body was now monitored twenty-four seven. Strangers most likely tracked his heart rate. Strangers were probably standing outside the door with their fingers clasped on the trigger of handguns that had already been unlocked.
“She’s young, she’s so young,” tears cascaded down Emmett’s pale cheeks taking away some of the cover up. Emmett hadn’t been sleeping well also. Jonathan could see the uneven tints of his skin.
“What happens when she tries to kill my daughter, to kill one of us?” Johnathan retorted.
“She wouldn’t.” But even Emmett couldn’t prevent the way his eyebrows lifted in hesitation. He had no idea what she was capable of now.
The door to the powdering room creaked open. Lilith fluttered in, she wore her usual mask of emotionless confidence. “We’re done.” She crossed her arms and waited for her husband’s reply.
“That soon?” Johnathan asked, “what time is it?”
“7:59, time to make our exit,” his wife replied. She turned towards Emmett. “Get yourself together.” She unclasped her clutch and flung her cover up at him. “You don’t lead a country looking weak,” she spat. With that Lilith left the restroom.
“Charmer your wife,” Emmett replied after he finished touching up his face. The brothers were surrounded by their entourage once again and were making their way outside to greet the crowd. Lilith was already doing her rounds.
Johnathan opened the door for his assistant. As they walked down the granite steps he noticed a much larger number of armed guards stationed outside than before. Odd, he thought. “Lilith’s different than us. She holds real power and she’s been trained to think like it too. We’re symbols. She’s an actual leader.”
“Don’t remind me,” Emmett mockingly laughed before he began to greet waiting spectators blocked off by a guarding rail. He accepted flowers and teddy bears. He shook hands and wished people well. Emmett leaned on his tip toes and peered over the crowd. Of course, he couldn’t see the end. He was no longer amazed by the large turnouts at engagements anymore. People needed hope during this long and everlasting war. He was just happy he could be apart of that.
And then it all went wrong. Before Emmett had time to think, to breathe, he was being shoved down to the ground – shielded by his protection teem. His ears were ringing. His chest ached from the large impact. His nose was bleeding. Yet he felt the warmth of blood on the back of his head, despite the fact he had fallen face first.
He opened his eyes – he hadn’t realized they were closed – and felt everything in him give out. He now knew where the blood had come from. His brother, his protector, his balancer, was lying on the ground in front of him with blood overflowing from somewhere on his head.
Johnathan’s eyes fluttered and his face was clenched in pain. He wheezed out the most unnatural and stomach churning sound the crowd had ever heard.
Emmett moved to his knees, fighting against the protection team. He crawled towards his brother and tried to find a pulse before the team ripped him away and into an ambulance. He didn’t have long. He clasped his brother’s hand for half of a second before he was separated from him.
“Is he dead?” Emmett demanded. He was still on the ground. “Is he dead?”
“I don’t know,” Lilith yelled. Frustration showed on every part of her body. Emmett hadn’t realized she was so close. Blood was entangled in her auburn hair. It blended well. Her heels were stuck in the pool of blood Johnathan had left. She glanced helplessly at her feet.
She choked out a sob. Something Emmett didn’t think was possible from her. “Why wouldn’t he be?” she gestured to the blood.
And Emmett had to agree.