The towering spires, the white walls that gleamed even in dusk, and the sweeping fragrant gardens were just as Estella had remembered since she left three years ago.
She inhaled the fresh scent of flowers, then grabbed her bag and strode to the bronze entrance, a pair of doors twelve feet high. A dozen guards stood at attention, hundreds more on the walls and the palace grounds, but none gave her a passing glance save for the guard captain escorting her to the entrance.
Nothing new, Estella thought in amusement. And honestly, she preferred it that way. Grand welcome parties were overrated anyways.
The hall was silent after the soft boom of the doors as they closed. She looked around, but no one was in sight—not even a maid. She stood alone on a marble floor polished so bright that it was almost painful to look at, her only companion the line of statues behind tall pillars.
“Well, are you just going to stand there like one of our ancestors’ boring statues?”
The voice echoed in the vast chamber, and Estella grinned as she glanced up the broad staircase in the middle. At the top stood Lucia, hands on her hips, a very unladylike gesture for a Crown Princess.
She descended the stairs with deliberate slowness, her golden locks almost glowing in the light cast by the chandeliers. Estella watched until only a few feet separated them and bowed, her eyes never leaving her elder sister. “I’m back, my Queen.”
Luciana saluted in the fashion of the Royal Army. “Welcome back, High General.”
Luciana’s lips twitched, and Estella kept her face neutral despite her own bubbling mirth. It was a running joke between them, born out of their respective dreams.
It was Estella who broke first, a grin splitting her face. Soon their laughter filled the chamber. Estella dropped her bag and engulfed her sister in a tight embrace. “I’ve missed you, Lucy.”
“And I’ve missed you so much, Ella.”
They separated a moment later. Luciana was taller than she, more elegant, but with steel in her that Estella knew would have a place in a battlefield if she had been allowed to.
“You seem lively,” Luciana noted.
“You mean I’ve never been lively?”
“You are. But you look livelier. And lovelier.”
Estella arched an eyebrow at the way Luciana was grinning. She had sent monthly letters, but she made sure to keep most of her school life a private matter, only telling her family the bare minimum of information.
Her sister’s expression, then, was suspicious. “I’m just happy to be back,” she said.
Luciana’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Oh? Isn’t it because of your Squire?”
Of course she knew about it. Estella sighed. “Let me guess. Aldros told you?” It was no secret that Luciana had been exchanging letters with him; they had known each other before Estella had even befriended him.
“Our friend was most reliable.” She glanced around furtively, an odd action considering the emptiness of the hall, then leaned forward and whispered, “Was he good?”
What? Estella blinked in confusion even though a part of her mind already had an inkling of what her sister meant. “As a Squire? Of course! I was even commended for training him and I got an award.”
Luciana’s grin spread wider. “Come on, Ella. You know what I mean.”
“I don’t,” Estella firmly said despite her futile attempt to remember that night with Nox. She could still feel the scorching kisses that was forever burned in her skin, the way her throat had gone almost raw from the emotions pouring from it, the traces of his tongue in her—
“Then why are you blushing?” Luciana smirked.
“I’m not,” Estella said indignantly. Calm down, she told herself. She had to calm down. Shaking her head, she grabbed her bag and asked, “Where’s Father and Auntie?”
It was endearing seeing Luciana pout, especially after three years of not seeing her, but Estella knew her cute expression was a trap. “Fine. If you don’t want to tell me all the juicy bits, I’ll find out eventually.” Smiling, she hooked her arm around Estella’s elbow. “As for your question, they are actually visiting the city and wouldn’t be back until later tonight.”
Estella sighed, even as her sister’s grin remained. It would be a long day.
Sleeping once more in her royal chamber, more than twice the size of her room in the Academy’s dorm, was something that Estella found strange. Everything seemed unfamiliar to her, even though the room had been preserved for when she returned. The velvet red sheets, her paintings of her family and various flowers, even the arrangement of her books on magic and swordsmanship.
And yet it didn’t feel right, somehow. She stirred from her sleep at the same time she always did back in the Academy, an hour before the sun rose. Her room faced the east, just like in her dorm, but she didn’t have to worry about being late for breakfast or any of her morning classes.
Or training with Nox.
Estella inhaled deeply. She knew what was missing; the silence in her head was deafening. At about this time, Nox would already be in the western training grounds, practicing his swordsmanship before she joined him for breakfast. Their classes were usually separate, but for lessons where they were together, Nox would always stay by her side.
And then lunch break, then more lessons, either alone or with him. Come afternoon, they would train together for an hour until dinner arrived, after which they would retire to the dorms.
A monotonous life, but one that Estella was happy with.
She filled her lungs with air again and rose from her bed. It’s been a week, but the emptiness was still there, like a part of her soul was missing—a gaping hole in her heart. They may have a strong Resonance, but that connection could only hold for so far before being rendered inactive by distance.
Wearing a dress of light red, Estella made her way to the royal dining hall. The King and Queen were already waiting, no doubt, and she had already prepared herself for the horde of questions that were soon to come, especially after she told them of her plan.
A dozen Royal Guards stood at attention, silent and vigilant in their crimson cloaks. The captain saluted before opening the broad oak doors, letting Estella pass.
Her footsteps echoed in the chamber, and she bowed at the man and woman sitting next to each other at the head of a long table. “Good morning, Father, Auntie.”
It was often said that her powers were a gift she had received from her mother, but no one could deny that Estella came from the lineage of kings. King Asteros’s hair was perfect match to her own, though lacking the luster that many admired her for. His stern face, however, was a trait she had not inherited, and neither was his imposing bulk.
Her father regarded her for a brief moment. There were more lines in his face than she remembered, but Estella could see the pride in his eyes. “Welcome back, Estella.” Her father’s rich voice, as always, was charismatic. “Have a seat.”
She bowed and strode briskly to sit next to him, opposite Luciana. As she settled into the velvety chair, her eyes landed on the plate covered by a silver lid. A familiar scent wafted from within, one she had last smelled six months ago.
She looked at her family in wonder. Queen Elena urged her with a smile and a nod, her golden bangs bouncing. Next to her, Luciana was smirking.
Estella opened the lid without wasting a second, and the sight of a pile of honey custard pies caught her breath. Freshly baked, with the crust in perfect color much like the ones she always ate in school.
“We requested for the baker to stay here for a week,” her father said, eyes twinkling. “A welcoming gift. And if you choose, we can hire her indefinitely.”
The smell was making her stomach grumble, but Estella couldn’t find any words to say. Her father’s offer was tempting, though, and she almost agreed. She wanted to agree.
But what about Nox? He wouldn’t be able to eat the pastry during his last year in the academy if Estella kept it all to herself.
Slowly, she grabbed one and took a bite. The familiar caramel taste exploded inside her mouth. There was no denying it; this was the same pie and not an imitation.
Her family was silent as she finished it in under a minute, not caring that the caramel dripped from the corner of her mouth. Only when she had swallowed the last bite did Estella wiped it with a napkin.
“You’re so like your mother,” Queen Elena noted with a sad smile.
“Sorry,” Estella said before she bowed. “And thank you for this gift. Thank you, Father. This means so much to me.”
Breakfast was pleasant with her family around her. She wouldn’t admit it, but Estella was truly happy to be back, even if she had left most of her heart back in the academy.
Her sister had bombarded her with questions, and so did the queen. Most were simple inquiries; how was your school life? Did you make a lot of friends? What were the tests like? But her father remained wordless. In fact, he didn’t seem surprised at some of the things Estella had experienced.
The Headmaster, Estella deduced. They were good friends, after all. He must be keeping her father informed of her school life. That should make things easier.
They were almost finished with breakfast. Father was sipping tea, staring out the window with a distant gaze, a familiar sight that meant his mind was racing. Thinking about the different concerns of the kingdom, no doubt. Estella hated to disturb him during such moments, but there was no opportunity after this, when he would already be busy with a lot of paperworks.
“If you have something to say, El, do it now before I leave.”
Estella smiled. Yet another familiar thing; her father knowing what was on her mind before she even speak. “Thank you, Father. I do have something to say.”
She drew a deep breath. “I want to be a teacher in the Academy.”
A roar from a monster in the Forsaken Forest could have been heard in the silence that followed. Estella’s heart pounded. It was his father who kept supporting her dream of becoming a High General, but only because he recognized her desire to protect the kingdom. But what if her dream no longer had the kingdom’s interests?
Would he still support her?
Estella held her breath until her lungs ached and she had to release the air. Her father’s answer was slow in coming. He turned away from the window and regarded her with an unreadable expression.
“Is this because of the Shadow wielder?”
The question didn’t come as a surprise, and Estella answered, “Yes. I want to continue teaching Nox.”
“And after that?
“I still want to become a High General… with him by my side.” She pointedly ignored the excited whispers coming from her sister and the queen.
Her father tapped a finger on the table in a rhythmic pattern, one that Estella recognized as the kingdom’s national anthem. She wanted to see that as a sign, but her father’s mind was ever unpredictable.
Finally, he said, “You are sure of this?” His voice was soft.
She nodded. “I am. I’ve never been more sure.”
“So be it, then.”
Estella could have sworn her heart almost exploded from that, but she held her composure. She bowed her head. “Thank you, Father.”
He dipped his head in return, a shadow of a smile in his face.
The months leading to her return to the Academy were three of the most difficult months in Estella’s life.
The waiting for the Academy’s approval of her application was nerve-wracking, but by far the worst was Nox’s silence. There were no letters about how he was doing or where he even was.
Estella knew he was alive. Though the Resonance was barely a thread connecting their thoughts, she could still feel him, like the gentlest brush of a breeze.
Some nights she couldn’t sleep, her dreams plagued by nightmares of what could have happened to him. Estella held on to the Resonance, then, and her nightmares would cease immediately.
But now was the day; the Academy had approved her application, and she would be returning, not as a student this time, but as a teacher.
Luciana had been a great help during her lowest times, and an even excellent motivator when Estella finally received the acceptance letter. Her sister helped her chose the things she would need to bring, and how she had to act in front of her students, especially Nox.
“You don’t ever want to show favoritism,” Lucian told her two days before Estella’s departure. “That’s a swift way to gaining bad reputation.”
“I won’t,” Estella promised. “I know my boundaries, Lucy.”
Luciana arched an eyebrow at that, and a smirk split her face. “Boundaries. Right. Like how you’ve chosen Nox as your Squire?”
Red-faced, Estella smacked her with the pillow she was stuffing inside her luggage. “That’s just a one-time thing!” She had long accepted that what she had done was harassment. A necessity on her part, but a harassment all the same. And she vowed never to do it again.
Luciano swerved away with a laugh. “Well, I’m just trying to help. We wouldn’t want you to make an awful impression at your first job.”
Her first job. Estella once thought it would be on some distant battlefield, commanding armies in the name of Faven. Or perhaps in a war room, planning the strategies for her army’s success. But never once did she dreamt of actually passing down her knowledge to other people.
And it was a wonderful feeling, more so because it would mean staying closer to Nox while seeing him grow even more stronger than before.
“You’re thinking about your Squire again?” Luciana teased.
Estella blinked, and resumed stuffing her luggage. “Yes.” There was no point denying it. “Anyway, how do you know so much about teaching?”
“Because I taught for three months last year.” Luciana’s voice was tinged with pride.
Estella looked at her in surprise. “You did?” She didn’t think that Luciana would be allowed considering her duties.
“Yes. And it wasn’t easy, I tell you, especially since my students were children. But it was really fun.” She shrugged. “A pity it had to end. They were summer classes. I did pretty well, though. The kids loved my lessons.”
“What did you teach?”
“The usual stuffs. Arts and crafts, gardening, history.” Luciana sighed. “I wanted to teach magic, but Father was against it. He and Mom even fought a few times.”
Estella grimaced. Luciana was a gifted mage, but their father forbade her from honing her skills. It was often a sensitive topic between the two monarchs, and she had heard her fair share of arguments before.
Looking at her sister now, though, Estella couldn’t help but ask softly, “Are you… disappointed that I got to study while you were kept here?”
Raising an eyebrow, Luciana laughed softly and shook her head. “I’m not. You should know that by now. Besides,” she raised her right hand and it was wreathed in fire, “who says I haven’t been studying?”
Both sisters grinned.
Two days seemed to pass like a blink of an eye, and now with the carriage awaiting her, Estella couldn’t believe that she was returning to the Academy after enduring three long years far from her family.
There were no tears, just like before. But her sister and the queen embraced far too long than she had expected. And her father, unlike before, was there to see her off.
His embrace was shorter, but when he pulled away, there was pride in her eyes. His hands lingered on her shoulder for a moment longer, then he stepped back.
“I’ll be off.” The king nodded, and Estella kept her expression neutral as she strode to the carriage.
Ten paces away, her father called, “Ella.”
Estella stopped and glanced at him. He was smiling. “I’d like to meet your Squire when you return,” he said.
Her eyes wide, Estella smiled back. “Of course, Father.”
As she sat in the carriage’s seat, Estella looked at her family one last time. Her eyes never left them, even as the carriage and its escorting knights rode through the castle gates.
Next year, she would return. And she would fulfill her promise.
With that vow she faced forward toward the distant horizon, her gaze drawn westward where her Squire awaited.
And this officially ends book 1 of The Princess of Light and The Knight of Shadow. Once again, thank you for the support. I’ll be taking a two-month break to focus on other projects and write the second book, but rest assured that it will come this year. And during my break, I will also revise the story to make it fit for publication. See you guys on the sequel!