We marched through the rough terrain for what seemed like days, occasionally stopping for a quick dip in a nearby pond or a nap in the glossy meadows. Pebbles wedged between my paws and dirt flew up into our faces, but Nero didn't seem to mind. He kept on, not once glancing in my direction to see of my whereabouts or if I needed rest.
Reaching the officials was a relief for my exhausted legs. The cobblestone path ahead sprouted dead weeds and smelled of manure. The few dwellings off to the side looked dark and uninhabitable, only revealing small cots stacked awkwardly on the damp floors. We made our way through twists and turns, passing seemingly abandoned huts and parched ponds.
"Nero!" Screeched an overzealous voice. A wrinkled man with drooping eyes staggered down the cracked stone steps of the official's tower. Nero tipped his head down slightly, not once meeting the old man's gaze.
"I apologize for the intrusion sir," Nero motioned for me to kneel beside him.
"Pfft." I stood impatiently.
"I stumbled upon a shifter out by the border." Nero continued.
"Very well," the man tore his eyes through mine. "She will be returned home as soon as possible. Young lady, what shall we call you?" Nero answered for me.
"This is Talla." His eyes flicked to mine briefly before settling into a blank stare once again. I smoothed my white coat with my paw, paying no attention to the old man's gaze. I realized this is the longest I'd ever been in my shifted form, even in private. I suddenly felt shy and exposed.
"Talla," the old man muttered to himself. "as in the daughter of Dren?" His voice became excited, his eyes lighting up. Nero finally snapped out of his daze, his brows drawn together in a look of confusion.
"Talla..." Echoed Nero, looking me up and down, like I was some sort of specimen in a lab. The wrinkled man turned quickly on his heels and bounced up the steps like he was young again. Nero let out a soft grunt, but his eyes were still concerned and gentle. He stopped for a few seconds, lost for words. "Let's go, it'll be dark soon." With that, he broke away from my gaze and started to walk back down the long path.
He led me back to where the cobblestone path met the dirt road, turning left into a grove of trees. I was confused, but I kept going. He never once let me out of his line of vision. The trees began to disappear behind us, leaving a large grassy clearing ahead. I spotted a tall building through the canopy. The building was handsome with rose bushes accompanied by two marble fountains guarding the entrance. Once inside, he skipped the introductions of his many housekeepers, leading me quietly up the wide staircase directly in front of the massive double doors we had just arrived through.
"Nero, what's going on? Why can't I go back yet?" I mumbled, biting my now, plump human lip.
"Do you even know where you are," he chuckled, but his face was fire. "you can't just leave." My face went white, I sat down onto the cool, oak floor.
"No, I don't know where I am!" I snapped. "You haven't bothered to tell me, I don't even fucking know you, so just let me go!" His eyes softened. He took a deep breath in, slowly easing down next to me.
"You are the daughter of Dren, a very prestigious official." He inched his hand closer to mine, testing me. I pulled back and he cleared his throat, tipping his head back in a defeated manner. "The man you just met? He's an official himself." He made a motion with his hands, creating a great distance between them. "You see, there are two sides. One which I serve..." he dropped his hands onto his lap and muttered, "and then there's your side. Actually the side you rule." He corrected himself.
"I don't rule anything." I crossed my arms, trying to reassure myself.
"Not yet," he wagged his eyebrows, the freckles on his nose made him look like an eager school boy. "but soon you will, so by stealing the queen, we've essentially cheated the game." My heart galloped, sending shivers down my spine and through my bones.
"Without the queen, there's no one to beat." I croaked. He nudged my shoulder playfully and winked. Heat flooded my face as I ran the line through my head.
I'm a normal teenage girl.
I'm a normal teenage girl.
Normal, I shook my head. I can never be normal. I realized I'm not surprised, not even fazed. I wanted to know my history, maybe this is good. Nero shrugged at my blank expression, trying to break my thoughts. He touched my wrist gently. He seemed confused himself. But why?
Chapter 2 - Talla: