"I expect you'll have the colonists back here shortly?" said Amara.
"Yes, of course," said Sillius, the balding Gnome with the mustache. He looked at her like he was unsure of her judgment. She tried to suppress the anger that brought. It was hard enough taking over the leadership of an entire race. She didn't need the constant second-guessing of all the people that didn't think she deserved the position. Nonetheless, Amara did her best not to show that it irked her.
"Good," she said. She turned to her guards. "The Gnomes can go free since we will be able to clean up this mess without our secret getting out, but if you tell anyone else about our warp room, it will be the end of you." Amara glared at Sillius and the other Gnome. It was a lighter punishment than she wanted to give since the warp room was so crucial to the Gnomes' success. But it would have to do. They needed their colonists back and these Gnomes at least knew where they were.
"As for them, do as I said. Lock them up and we'll deal with them later." Amara kept a stern face as she spoke. Sillius and the guards turned and left with the prisoners in tow. The Treek gave one final look to Amara, and it only made her angrier. They disappeared into the illusionary halls of the palace.
Amara let out a breath and slammed her fist on the railing once she knew she was alone. There was so much pressure on her, so much responsibility. It was boiling over and making her weak. She ignored the dampness of her eyes and turned back to her quarters.
Amara sat down at her desk. She picked up a stack of letters that had been curated for her: a letter from a lieutenant asking for reinforcements, another from a local official asking for aid for the town of Galepsy, and so on. She picked one up to read it, but the words wouldn't stick in her mind.
She growled and threw the paper down. She slammed a fist on her desk and then swiped it clean with an outstretched arm. The stand-in leader collapsed into her hands on the desk. Why am I so ineffective right now? Why am I failing our people? she thought. It's just stress, she told herself.
She stood up from her desk and paced the room. After a moment, she stopped beside her bed, her eyes settling on a wooden box tucked underneath. Amara bent down and looked at the item. It was old. She had kept it since her childhood. It was frivolous for someone in the military to keep such a large sentimental item. She wasn't sure why she had failed to get rid of it. She bent down over the box and opened it.
Inside were papers. There were a few drawings, of a male Gnome with a long beard holding hands with a female with blonde hair. Between the two was a small girl with a large smile.
Amara crumpled the paper and threw it at the ground, snorting at the image. She looked at the other items in the box. There was a stretch of purple fabric, fabric that she had picked out when her mother made a new coat for Zef. This one was extra with a heart stitched into it. She could remember being so excited when her mom stitched that heart so long ago. It hurt just to look at.
"Why did you have to die?" she asked to the empty room. "You had to die and leave me with him." she shook her head.
She pulled the cloth up to her face and sniffed it. It smelled musty, but still had a faint smell of hibiscus tea—or maybe that was just Amara's imagination. Either way, it made her miss her mother more.
Amara sighed and sat on the floor, leaning her back against the bed. She didn't understand why she was so upset. She hated Zef. Once upon a time she had even told him that she wished he had died instead of her mother. And now he was dead.
Amara looked back down at the box. Underneath the papers and fabric, under the stuffed animal owl that was worn to the point that the treads were pulling loose, there was a small tree branch.
Amara squinted at the object, and then pulled it out from beneath the clutter. She held it up in front of her. It was so small now, so much smaller than she remembered it. She looked down at the decorative rapier that hung from her belt and then back at the stick she held in her hand.
Her eyes watered again, but this time Amara didn't try to force back the tears. She stared at the stick remembering her training sessions with Zef—her dad. He had taught her so much. And then he betrayed her.
"Why did you do it, dad?" she asked the empty room.
There was a knock at the door, and Amara instantly tried to compose herself. She shoved the stick back into the box and pushed it under the bed.
"What is it?" she said, using her forearm to wipe the tears from her face. She stood and straightened her close.
"General, you are needed in the war room. We need guidance on the invasion." It was a voice she knew to be Frackle, of her advisors.
"Yes, of course," said Amara. "I'll be there in a moment."
There was a pause. "Is everything alright ma'am?" asked Frackle.
Can he hear that I'm upset, Amara thought. She cleared her throat and tried to sound more confident. "Yes. Just give me a moment. I'll meet you there."
"Sure thing," said Frackle, followed by the fading sound of footsteps.
Amara looked in the mirror, making sure that she looked like she hadn't been even remotely upset. When she was satisfied, she left the room and headed for the war room.
She walked down the illusory hallway. With small bursts of magic, she could see through the enchantment, but she had walked these halls enough even before she assumed the throne that she didn't need to check where she was.
She traveled down the hallway at a brisk pace, hoping not to keep anyone waiting. She passed the mess hall and the barracks. When she was passing the jail cells, she hesitated for a moment.
It wouldn't hurt to make sure the prisoners aren't trying to pull anything, she thought, and she took the turn toward the cells.
They were empty for the time being. All of their prisoners had either been dealt with or had been used as ransom as a result of the King's passing. The only prisoners they had were the ones who willingly gave themselves up earlier that day. It still didn't make sense to her why a Treek, a Beastfolk, an Elf, and a Human would want to deliver news of a Gnome's passing to their child. Did they just want to watch me squirm? Or do they actually care about him? It was a stupid thought.
Amara crept to the corner outside of their cell as they talked amongst themselves. Maybe they would say something incriminating, or maybe they would give up valuable information about enemies of the Gnomes. There was good reason to be checking up on them like this.
"I miss him," said the Treek girl.
She can't possibly be talking about my dad. Why would a Treek miss a Gnome? Why wouldn't she be happy about it, even if she didn't do the deed herself?
"Zef would have been welcome company right now, stuck in a jail cell," said the Treek. "He was last time."
"Yeah," said the Elf. "I miss him too. He kind of felt like the father of the group. Like he always knew more than he let on."
They were talking about Amara's dad. But why? Why did these people think that working together would be productive in any sense? The differences are too great. Different cultures, different customs, and most importantly, they had all hurt each other. Every race had badly hurt any other race. That's not the kind of hurt you can just get over. It burns within you for your entire life until you pass it on to your children. Right?
Amara continued to listen as the group reminisced about her dad. It sounded genuine. They sounded like they actually cared for him. And their memories brought back memories of her own.
Why do I care? Amara asked herself. He hurt me. He left me when he was all I had left. He doesn't deserve my tears.
Yet, despite herself, Amara was crying again. She was mad at herself for it, but she couldn't stop it either. What is my problem?
Something tapped her shoulder and Amara jumped at the sudden disturbance. She turned to see Frackle looking back at her.
He had a look of shock as soon as he realized she was crying. "Oh, I—"
Amara put a finger to her mouth and the advisor stopped talking. She waved him forward and then followed him away from the jail cells and to the war room.
Amara was back in the throne room, eating a quick meal before getting back to work when she heard footsteps approach once again.
"I'm short on time today," Amara said, anticipating the request that was bound to come from whoever approached. She was surpised to see Sillius enter the room instead of one of her advisors.
"Sorry, I was just coming to ask for orders," said Sillius.
"Yes. We found our people on Daegal, and they should be on their way back shortly through the teleporters. But Daegal was my latest mission, maintaining that colony and the truce there. Now that I'm back..." he trailed off.
"Right," said Amara. "Well, we're planning an invasion on Briqor. If you're up to getting back into the thick of it, we could use any extra bodies there."
"Yes ma'am," he said. Sillius turned to leave the room but he hesitated at the same time as Amara spoke.
He stopped and turned back to look at Amara. "Yes?"
"Um. Did you know my father? Zef?" She spoke slowly, unsure of each word.
"Yes. I did," said Sillius. He looked down at the ground and then back at her. "I got the impression he cared about you a lot."
Amara scoffed at the statement. "I wonder why he chose to abandon me for that Treek girl and her friends then."
Sillius looked to the side as if he had more to say.
"What is it? Why are you acting like that?" asked Amara.
He scratched his bald head. "I'm still not sure how I feel about this myself. He and that group, they did something on Daegal. They worked together, and they were arguably the most effective group there. They uncovered some things that the rest of us were too afraid to confront."
"Yes. My dad had some weird obsession with other races over his own. But why are you telling me this?"
"Well, that group seems to have really bonded, in a large part due to your father. When he originally said it, I thought he was disgracing you. But I'm starting to think he said it because he cares a lot about both of you. You both have so much power, so much potential that you don't see in yourselves."
"You're not making any sense. What did he say?" asked Amara, trying to parse the statement.
Sillius scratched his head again. "He told me a few weeks back that he cared a lot about the Treek girl, Kaia. He told me that she reminded him of you."