I awoke slowly. There was an ache that just filled my whole body, and I couldn’t help but feel an incredible need for water as my throat hurt a ridiculous amount.
“She’s waking!” I heard someone whisper eagerly.
“Shhh!” Someone else shushed.
“Oh, for god’s sake,” A louder, harsher voice cut in. “Lexy, can you hear us?”
“Yes.” I grumbled, feeling annoyed that I had to wake up.
“How do you feel?” Annabeth asked eagerly.
I opened my eyes, but the light was bright, and my eye lids were heavy, so I more so just squinted.
“Can I have water?” I asked.
I heard a scramble, but I couldn’t see who got up, they were out of my limited sight.
“Here,” Seth’s deep voice registered in my head as an arm looped around my waste and helped me sit.
I took a big sip, then sighed.
“Much better.” I looked around at the anxious faces around me.
“Oh good!” Annabeth breathed an excited sigh of relief before throwing her arms around me, uncharacteristically. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” I told her. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
“You could have died!” She exclaimed.
“But I didn’t,” I smiled. “It’s all fine.”
“But it’s not all fine! Everything’s a mess.”
I nodded. Simply put, everything was a mess.
“Okay, how long was I out?” I asked.
“A couple of hours.” Seth replied. There was something in his voice that upset me. I could tell he was upset, but why I wasn’t quite sure.
“Okay, and has anyone come looking for us?”
“Just once.” Jake answered tersely.
“What did they want?” I asked, rubbing my head.
“To know when we’d be ready.” Jake said again.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
“Do we have a plan already?”
A look was exchanged between Seth and Jake, and Annabeth’s gaze immediately dropped to her hands.
“Annie?” I interrogated. “What’s the plan that you all don’t want me to know?”
“We’re sending you home.” She replied, still not looking at me. “To the base I mean.”
“Like hell you are,” I argued, feeling angry that I had just taken on the challenge just to immediately lose my place.
“Look, it’s safest for you there. Nobody here likes you, it’s just not safe. It’s the right thing to do.”
“No.” I felt like a child. “No. I’m not leaving. If I leave, she’ll think she won. And she did not win.”
“If she thinks she won, maybe it will help us more?” She offered, half-heartedly.
“That’s a lie, and you know it. I’m not leaving.”
“Lexy…” Seth tried. “Just think for a moment. Is this really worth dying for?”
“YES!” I shouted. “YES! I can’t just stand by and watch everything I care about burn to the ground!”
“Alexandra,” Seth raised his voice too. “Do you even hear yourself? You know next to nothing about Calina. You’re not in deep enough to be stuck yet. You have an out. Take it, for god’s sake take it!!!”
“You think after you turn me loose that my Aunt won’t come for me? You think she’s happy that I chose my best friend over my family? Sure, okay, kick me out. I’ll go elsewhere to save my family.” I could hear the coldness in my voice, but I was angry.
“Enough.” Jake interjected. “She said no, go on to plan b, already.”
“What’s plan B?”
“We go out and follow the plans like nothing happened,” Seth said quietly.
“I stay?” I gave him a pleading look to try and understand what was going on, and that it was far more than what was on the surface.
“You stay.” But he didn’t look at me.
I squeezed Annie’s hand, and took a breath.
“So where are we expected?” I asked.
“The same meeting room as yesterday.” Jake answered.
“And what’s happening there?”
“Probably the Bwenzi Nkhondo ceremony,” Jake once again spoke instead of the two people I actually knew. The tension was obvious, and uncomfortable, and we had to figure it out fast.
“Do we need to change or are our outfits sufficient?”
“I would say they’re fine.” Jake answered easily, he put his hand on Annabeth’s shoulder, taking me by surprise. “Come on, Annabeth, let’s go check your room, and make sure it’s all good before we go.”
She gave him a curious look but didn’t argue. She let go of my hand and left the room without another word.
The door shut loudly behind them, and I couldn’t help but cringe at the sound. The door was barely shut before Seth started again.
“If you’re doing this to torture me, please, you win. I’ll leave you alone. I’ll do fucking anything. Just stop whatever this is.”
I frowned. “Torture you? I’m not doing this to hurt you, Seth. I’m doing this because I know I have a role in all of this, and I won’t be silenced and sit on the sidelines.”
“Please… Lex… You have no idea what any of these people are capable of. We need to get you out of here. Hide you away somewhere.”
I felt shaky, but I moved so I was kneeling right in front of the standing Seth, and I touched his face gently. I don’t know what I was trying to do exactly, but I was trying to ease his worry, at least a little bit.
“I will not hide away, Seth,” I said gently. “I told you, you can stand with me or don’t. But if you stand with me, you can’t do this anymore.”
“Can’t do what?”
“Stand in my way. Stop me.” I twirled his hair in my fingers. “I need to do this, and I need to figure out my boundaries myself, and you have to let me.”
“If anything happens to you, Lex,” He breathed. “I don’t think I’ll be able to live with myself.”
“I’m going to be just fine,” I whispered, wrapping my arms around his neck.
“Promise me you’ll be careful,” His forehead touched mine.
“I promise I will be as careful as I can,” I told him earnestly.
“You terrify me, you know that right?” He asked, with a slight laugh.
“I terrify everybody, it’s kinda my thing,” I laughed, letting go of his neck, and moving off the bed.
He rolled his eyes and gave me his hand as I climbed off the bed.
“So, uh,” He cleared his throat. “Are we good, Lex? Are you still mad at me?”
“What do you think?” I asked, feeling more myself, despite the shakiness, and very mischievous.
“I think you can’t stay mad at me,” He smiled.
I smirked, but I was glad my back was to him as I walked toward Annabeth’s room.
“I think you’re on thin ice, Steele,” I teased.
“Watch it, Marks,” He shot back. “I still know you’re secrets.”
It was my turn to roll my eyes, but I didn’t reply simply because I was already at Annabeth’s door. But when I opened it, to my surprise, Annabeth had her lips locked with Jake. His hands were in her hair, and I realized I had just 100% walked in on something I had not been meant to see. And I could not help the “Oh,” that left my lips without permission or the slam of the door behind me, closing on Seth.
I tried to turn out of the room, but the door had slammed closed in my surprise, and I heard an “Ow!” Come from the other side, meaning Seth had either run into it or I had hit him with it.
Jake and Annabeth pulled away immediately at my abrupt entrance, and I could not help the 9 shades of red I was turning with embarrassment, so I turned away so I was staring at the door I had just walked through.
“I’ll uh be outside waiting Princess,” Jake stuttered, and hurried out of the room. His usual cool attitude and nearly non-existent emotions seemed to be teetering off the edge, and he was as flustered as I’d ever seen him.
“What the hell?!” Both Seth and I exclaimed at the same time.
“What happened to you?” Annabeth looked at Seth in confusion as he clumsily shut the door behind him, rubbing his head.
“Lexy hit me with the door!” He informed her, confused as to why Annabeth had no idea as to what had just happened.
“Oh, well she walked in on me and Jake kissing, so I win,” Annabeth responded with a shaky laugh.
“What?!” Seth’s eyes got wide and it was truly a comical sight between the two of them.
“Oh please,” I rolled my eyes. “Don’t be less dramatic than it was, I caught them making out, and I hit you with a door, so I am the real winning right now.”
Both of them shot me a glare, but it didn’t matter. All in the world felt right, despite the fact that I had nearly just died hours ago. And my epi pen wasn’t typically the end all solution, but it was gonna have to be for the time being.
“Come on, we’ve kept everyone waiting long enough, let’s go.” I linked arms with Annabeth, and she gave me a small smile as we made our way out of her room.
“Are you sure you’re feeling okay?” She asked in a low voice for just me to hear.
“I’m sure, are you?”
“I can literally feel you shaking right now,” She answered in exasperation.
“I’m fine.” I told her easily, as if it was the truth, even though I was honestly trying not to throw up. “Promise.”
“I don’t believe your promise.” She reproached.
“I’m not great, but I’m not horrible. And I might throw up right on the Queen.”
Annabeth let out a laugh that caused all the maids around to look at us.
“I’d love to see that,” She said still laughing.
“Oh trust me, it might happen.”
Jake stopped abruptly in front of us causing us to nearly run into him, and to my surprise it was the Queen herself standing before us. Jake and Seth both bowed, but Annabeth and I stood straighter, our arms still linked. In everything that could or could not happen, we were stronger together.
“Ah,” She sneered, looking down at us. “I was just coming to find you all. Did you decide to come to the meeting after all?”
“Has Lexy been approved to be my Bwenzi Nkhondo?” Annabeth asked, sounding quite bold.
“Not yet.” The Queen answered shortly.
“Then no. Jake and Seth were just giving us a tour before we leave.” Annabeth stated firmly.
“You do not have permission to leave child,” Her mother tried, but her own authority seemed to be wavering.
“I don’t remember asking for permission,” Annabeth said coldly.
“If this is the path you choose child, I can only help you so much.”
“Should I make a speech to the country about how Lexy is not her aunt or will you stand by my choices,” Annabeth sounded angry.
In all the time I had known her, she had never shown much anger or frustration ever, despite her constant array of complicated situations. But right now, she was angry.
“This is my team, Mother,” She said again before the Queen could speak. “Lexy is my Bwenzi Nkhondo. And Seth and Jake are my guards and my counsels. And Matthew if he chooses as well, though I have not talked to him yet. It is not up for debate. It is not under questioning. The prophecy was clear that I am the answer to everything. So, you can not boss me around. You can not threaten my counsel. You may be the Queen, but they are under my protection, and my reign.”
I did my best to hide my surprise. I wasn’t sure exactly what had happened while I had been out, but for the first time Annabeth seemed to be taking charge of what was happening.
“Do you know what you are doing, Annabeth?” The Queen asked.
“You already know the answer to that,” Annabeth said seriously.
“Very well. And Miss. Marks isn’t coercing you into this?”
“Again, you know the answer to that already,” Annabeth responded in irritation.
“Very well then, head to the meeting room, and we will tell them the decisions have already been made. They had a few people in mind to be part of your counsel already. Perhaps you would be willing to add to it?”
“Not at the moment,” Annabeth said coolly. “I have no trust for your people at the moment.”
“I see,” The Queen narrowed her eyes, but simply turned away and gestured to follow.
I could hear her thoughts moving a mile a minute and they had a similar feeling to Annabeth’s, but they were less clear. She was purposefully blocking important information from being able to be heard by people like me, however, it wasn’t quite good enough.
I stole a look behind me to see Seth was less than a foot behind us, far closer than he had been before the Queen had showed up. And I knew it was because she scared him. She had already attempted to kill me, he was terrified that Annabeth’s word was not enough. And honestly, so was I.
“So how exactly does the Bwenzi Nkhondo ceremony work?” I spoke up for the first time, but my voice didn’t sound as confident as I would have liked. I was fighting nerves that I didn’t know I had till I had spoken.
“It’s quite invasive actually.” The Queen answered smugly. “The idea is that Princess Annabeth and yourself will become, let’s say, one. You will be able to feel what the other feels. Clearly hear the other’s thoughts. Have each other’s strengths and hopefully void each other’s weaknesses.” The Queen paused. “It is a beautiful ceremony, however, Miss. Marks, you are looking a little pale. Are you sure you want to continue?”
There was a fake sweetness in her voice, and it made me angry. She was being manipulative, trying to see how I felt after she had tried to poison me. And god, that was irritating.
“I’m sure, Your Majesty.” I answered, trying to keep the bitterness from my voice.
“Very well. This is where it will happen.” She gestured to a room that neither Annabeth or I had been in yet, which shouldn’t have been surprising seeing how big the castle was, but I had been expecting to go back to the same meeting room as before. “Wait here, and I will summon everyone. Annabeth, dear, take your friends and go stand on the stage, please.”
With Annabeth’s arm still linked tightly in mine, we approached the small platform. This seemed to be a theater of sorts, however, it was smaller than I might have imagined a theater in a castle to look. It could hold only maybe 100 people, which was wild because my high school had a bigger auditorium than this.
“Lex,” Annabeth’s voice brought me out of my head.
“Yea?” I asked.
“Do you need to postpone this?”
“No, why?” I asked, feeling confused.
“You look like you’re going to pass out, and you are leaning into me a lot.”
I shook my head and immediately let go of her arm, backing away. I hadn’t realized what I was doing.
“Oh, sorry,” I apologized immediately, but I guess I couldn’t hide the total confusion on my face.
“Are you okay?” She asked hesitantly.
And I took another step back. There were so many voices in my head, and I couldn’t make sense of a single one of them.
“I-“ I stepped right back into Seth feeling really unsteady.
“Lex?” His deep voice rang out with concern.
“I don’t know.” I said finally when I could make out at least my own thoughts. “I it’s so loud.”
I knew Seth give Annie a worried look, but I could barely figure out what was going on. I wasn’t sure if this was still allergic reaction shit or if it was something else entirely.
“Lexy,” It was Jake’s turn to try and pull me out of my head. “We need you to become Annabeth’s Bwenzi Nkhondo. And it needs to be today. The stronger you two are the better. The more protected she is. And the more protected you are. You are her protector. That is what you are choosing. So you need to block whatever’s going on in your head. Imagine a wall going up between you and the voices. It’ll help block them out a little. But you need to focus.”
Despite his advice to focus, it wasn’t coming easily. I knew this was important, but I felt really weak for the first time since I got up. And I was not sure that I could do this.”
“I bet she’s hearing the people starting to arrive for the ball,” Seth said quietly.
“Yes!” I exclaimed breathlessly. “Yes that makes sense.”
“That’s an annoying thing to hear,” Jake mumbled.
“Yes, it is,” I agreed, still struggling to block it out, but I knew I was running out of time. The Queen was going to be back any moment with more people, and I was a mess, trying really hard not to just pass out.
I stumbled slightly, and Seth pulled me into him, and started singing softly in my ear. At first I couldn’t even tell what he was singing, but after a minute it started getting clearer. It was blocking out the thoughts the way my headphones often did.
When I finally could think straight again there were voices in the hall coming closer.
“How did you know I usually use music to block out thoughts?” I asked him breathlessly.
“I still know you, Lex. It’s been a long time, but I still know you.”
I smiled and took a deep breath. I was exhausted which is why it was harder to fight the thoughts right now.
“Can you get through the ceremony?” Jake questioned uneasily, refusing to look at anyone, especially not Annabeth.
“Can you sing in your head?” I asked Seth as the voices drifted closer to our room.
“Of course,” He nodded.
“Then I can, but I still think I’m going to throw up.” I said honestly. “So after this, I need to just go do that.”
“Probably your body just trying to get rid of the allergen,” Annabeth stated calmly.
“I’m sorry, I’m ruining your moment.” I told her.
“Are you kidding?” She looked aghast. “I just want you to be okay.”
“I’m fine,” I told her with a smile. “Just casually taking a ride on the struggle bus.”
She rolled her eyes at me.
“You are impossible,” She teased, but her face was slightly serious.
“Not changing your mind on me now, are you girls?” The Queen demanded as she walked through the double doors.
I tried not to show my amusement as I came to the realization that nearly every door in the castle was a double door made purely for the purpose of dramatic entrances, and the Queen was the Queen of them.
“I find you unamusing, Alexandra,” The Queen said in a bored tone as she took a seat in the center of the middle row.
“You heard that did you?” I couldn’t help the heat the was rising to my cheeks, despite my comment.
“As I said, I am unamused.” She berated.
“Good thing it wasn’t for you then, isn’t it?” I smirked.
“Leave it alone, Harriet,” The King who I hadn’t seen enter stated.
I really wanted to say back ‘Yea, leave it alone, Harriet.’ But I already wasn’t a favorite here, so I didn’t want to push my luck anymore. Plus, she might have been able to hear the thought anyway.
“Right, shall we get started?” I asked, knowing that if we didn’t get this show on the road I was going to pass out, and we would have some major problems on hands.
The Queen, being a lovely, polite woman, did not roll her eyes at me, despite how much she wanted to. She did, however, signal to all those just coming in to take their seats, we were ready to begin.
I did my best to focus on Seth’s singing, and I shot a smile in Annabeth’s direction as she seemed to be a little nervous.
When everyone had taken their seats, I took initiative and started the damn meeting.
“Hello!” I called out, placing myself in the center of the stage, giving my friends a smile because they were glad to not be in the spotlight just yet.
“Some of you may know me, others may not, so let me introduce myself,” I stated confidently. If only I had felt this at ease during all my presentations in school, I would have done a hell of a lot better. I also knew there was a hell of a lot more at stake now than a bad grade so I had no choice but to pretend that I felt comfortable, and in a way, I kinda was. “My name is Alexandra Marks. You may call me Lexy. I am the niece of Viviana, however, I do not agree with her beliefs, hence why I am here. I have been chosen to the Princess’s Bwenzi Nkhondo, making me the Princess’s Protector. This is non-negotiable. The Princess has also chosen the first official members of her personal guard as well as who will be on her counsel. Her counsel will consist of myself, Alexandra Marks, her guard, Seth Steele, and her other guard, Jacob Graening. These are also non-debatable. Does anyone have any questions so far?”
Nearly every hand in the room went up. I shook my head in disbelief, and then pointed to a woman who was wearing a grey suit jacket and matching skirt.
“Why?” She asked. “Why those picks?”
I looked at Annabeth to see if she wanted to answer, and she shook her head nervously, so I took the question.
“The Princess trusts us. I have been friends with her for a long time. I’ve known Seth nearly my whole life, and Princess Annabeth trusts me, and I trust Seth, who has know Jacob much longer than both of us, however, he has proved himself to us in the short time we’ve known him.”
“How do we know you aren’t lying? Why isn’t the Princess speaking about this?” Someone called out.
“She’s the Princess, so she can choose when she wants to speak, and she has chosen not to at this moment. She can do as she pleases. As for if I’m lying, I’m well aware that I am in a room with people who have mastered their gifts, so bias getting in the way of the truth is the issue, not me.”
“Was that an insult?” Someone shouted.
“No, simply a statement,” I tried to focus on Seth still singing in his head, but it was getting harder to block, and I would have killed for my headphones right then. “We are ready to begin the ceremony.”
“The Ceremony?” A man in a plaid shirt questioned.
“Yes, the one where Annabeth and I become Bwenzi Nkhondos.” I replied patiently.
“Right now, actually.”
“Did the Queen approve?”
I motioned to the Queen for the answer.
“The prophecy is thought to be about my daughter. I trust that she has the right amount of information to be successful.”
I nodded in agreement. I had heard an awful lot about a prophecy I hadn’t heard yet, but I just added it to my mental list of things I needed to do. For a split second, I thought about how my sisters were also my responsibility and I had just left them in a house full of strangers. But as quick as it had come, I pushed it away. This was for them. This was how I could protect them, and I couldn’t feel guilty about that.
“Alexandra Marks are you sure you are ready to become Princess Annabeth’s Protector and Bwenzi Nkhondo?” The King asked this time sounding far less confident than the Queen ever did.
“I am.” I responded.
I had been pairing the two things together all day, but the truth was, they weren’t the same. They weren’t even close really. But I needed Annabeth to think they were together. Alex had asked me to become her protector the first day I had arrived at the base. He had told me that it would give me a higher ranking than just Bwenzi Nkhondo and it would put Annabeth’s safety in my hands. It would be the most responsible thing to do for her. There were a few reasons to do it, even though I wasn’t trained yet. One was simply, as her Bwenzi Nkhondo, we’d be connected and in sync. We’d know each other’s feelings and thoughts which would keep both of us protected. Plus, adding the protector piece, they can’t kill one without serious complications. It isn’t exactly known what the implications are as there have been very few protectors throughout history, however, it is very well know that it is dangerous. So basically, it makes us both unkillable at least for now. And 2. I am related to Viviana. She was my aunt. My dad is with her and my mom. So maybe, they don’t want to kill me either. I think they would if they had too. But they don’t want to. And that’s kinda what were banking on. On the downside, they know what I’m capable of. They know my strengths and weaknesses. But they know that I am fiercely loyal and if they could get me to their side, they would destroy Annabeth, making her defeatable. So, me being the protector, is imperative.
“Annabeth, come out to the center of the stage dear,” The Queen called out.
Annabeth approached slowly, looking nervous, but there was also grave concern on her face telling me that I must be looking paler by the minute because I was feeling worse by the minute.
“You are both lefties, am I correct?” The Queen asked.
“Yes ma’am,” I answered for the both of us.
“Wonderful. So take each other’s wrist, similar to how you would shake hands, but at the wrists. And hold it there.”
We did as we were instructed, and a red string of light weaved around out wrists from about the mid-forearm.
“As Bwenzi Nkhondos you will be able to feel each other. You will be each other’s strength when the world seems to be too much. You will be each other’s mind. You will be able to pull from one another more. You will be able to access each other’s gifts to a degree. You will protect each other from harm, and fight for one another when it is needed. You will work as one and maneuver as one when necessary. When you doubt your abilities, you will be able to see the other’s feelings through your wrists and communicate in ways that others cannot.” A woman spoke firmly, standing at the base of the stage. “Do you agree to these terms?”
“I agree,” I responded.
Annabeth looked slightly more hesitant, but I gave her a nod of encouragement and she also agreed.
“Are you certain, Annabeth?” The Queen called out, she had read Annabeth’s hesitation like a book.
Annabeth smiled back at her, though it was hard to see into the crowd now that there was a spotlight on us. “Of course, I’m sure,” Annabeth sounded fake, but I knew it was because she was irritated with her mom. “Lexy will be my one and only Bwenzi Nkhondo for life.”
“Should I continue?” The woman in front asked nervously.
“Please do,” Annabeth smiled, ignoring the nerves I know she was feeling.
The woman cleared her throat nervously and continued, “With this bond that you have both accepted, you will always be linked to one another. When one is happy, the band will glow green. When one is down, it will burn pink. When you are warm it will be yellow, cold it will be blue. It will be tan if one is feeling neutral or indifferent, orange if one is confident, and teal if there is fear or anxiety. It will be purple when one is calm and burn red when there is pain either physically or emotionally. You two will be as one. This band will not be able to be removed until the bond between you two is broken. This band unites you, and will always remind you of the person you must protect. We are a country of constant war, but may you not be at war with each other. Let you be individuals who share a bond of care and power. Let the world not slow you down as for now you are both stronger than you ever were apart.”
The rope like bracelet then solidified itself to our wrist – and for a brief moment I thought that we would be tied together forever – but then it snapped and secured itself on both of our wrists’. I realized then that I couldn’t see the band on Anna’s wrist anymore, I could only see mine. We let go of each other’s hand and I immediately felt the spot that the band had just been. It was now burned into my skin, and I realized only I could see it, which was probably a good thing because it was teal.
“We did it,” I whispered, pulling her in to a hug.
“We did,” She whispered shakily back into my ear. “Do you think we can leave now?”
“I’m not sure,” I frowned.
I had forgotten in those few moments that I wasn’t feeling great, but it was coming back, stronger than ever.
We’d pulled a part, and Annabeth immediately grabbed my hand, and started pulling me off stage behind her.
“Where are you going?” The Queen demanded, causing us to freeze.
“We are done, are we not?” Annabeth questioned, sounding extremely confident that I almost believed it.
“The ceremony is done, yes.” The Queen answered, but there were questions in her tone.
“And were we not told to go back to our rooms at 3 to prepare for the ball?”
“You were.” The Queen said, her voice harder this time.
“And isn’t it after 3?”
“Yes.” This time the Queen’s annoyance was very clear.
“Then we must go get ready.” Annabeth held her head up, and started off the stage again.
“Wait,” The Queen’s cold voice cut in again, making us stop. “I thought since you missed most of today’s meetings that you would attend some this afternoon.”
“Whose fault is it that I missed those meetings?” Annabeth sounded cold. “We have no intention of going to anything else today other than the ball. Then we will be leaving.”
Annabeth then practically dragged me the rest of the way, her anger evident.
“Let’s go.” The anger still in her voice when she approached the guys, and she dropped my hand.
“You look like hell,” Seth muttered to me, but he was looking at Annabeth.
“I just need a nap.” I told him.
And the world seemed to move in slow motion as we exited. Jake led the way, Annabeth, directly behind him, and Seth and I took up the rear walking slightly slower. I didn’t share Annabeth’s anger. I just felt exhausted. And it seemed like it was nothing that a nap couldn’t fix.