As the foursome neared King Quirinus’ palace, Dianthe faced a dilemma. She was the only one who was able to handle the flower. Therefore, she was, in theory, the victor of the quest. But the quest meant nothing to her. She laughed at the ridiculous notion of being wed to Cardelia or being given Quirinus’ kingdom to rule.
She could tell the old king she pledged the flower in the name of Xavier but that would mean he would wed Cardelia which she knew would mean unhappiness for both of them.
Pledging the flower in Cardelia’s name would have the same result, as Cardelia would wed Xavier out of a sense of duty.
Which left Valerius, who was the worst choice of all. Pledging the flower in Valerius’ name would mean the two kingdoms would not be joined. Cardelia and Valerius seemed suited for each other but they would be forever plagued with guilt that their union resulted in the demise of Xavier’s realm.
There had to be another way…
The great hall was completely packed, it seemed the entire kingdom had turned up to witness first, the miraculous reappearance of the princess Cardelia who had been missing for more than a cycle of the moon. And second, the two brothers who, it was rumored, had successfully completed the quest.
King Quirinus was weary of the almost daily return of noblemen claiming to have successfully completed the quest. But this was different, for Cardelia had returned with the brothers along with Dianthe.
Cardelia’s hair was shorter, he noticed as he made his way to the high table. He had an idea that she must have posed as a boy to escape the grounds and to travel with the brothers. If the brothers were wrong, he’d have to send one or both of them to their deaths to protect Cardelia’s reputation. He hated the thought, but he could not risk being seen as soft.
Quirinus nodded to the foursome seated before him, indicating his approval for them to begin. To his surprise, it was Dianthe who stood up.
“Your majesty,” she bowed before him. She held the stem of a large plant, the head of which was hidden beneath a large piece of cloth. “We traveled to Mount Olympus, home of the twelve true paired gods.”
Quirinus sat up in his chair, they’d got the location right. He exchanged a knowing look with the priest.
“And found the flower contrary—the Princess of the Night.” Dianthe pulled the cloth away to reveal the enormous pure white bud of a flower. “It sleeps now, to bloom during the dark of night.”
The priest clapped his hands in glee, and everyone in the room knew that the foursome had returned with the correct answer.
“But child,” the king said. “You cannot claim the reward. What would you have us do? You must give the flower to one of the men with whom you have traveled.”
“Yes, that was my thought as well,” Dianthe said, stepping backward from where she stood and then slowly walking toward the massive fire pit that warmed the room. “But no matter to whom I give the flower, it will only bring misery.” With a slow and deliberate motion, she dropped the flower into the fire.
There were multiple gasps as the flames ate up the snow white petals, reducing them to ash. Xavier and Valerius looked incredulous and Cardelia looked ready to murder her. But then the palace guards were upon her and dragging her away, probably to her death.
“Dianthe!” Xavier shouted, coming after her, sword drawn. His brother followed, and Dianthe felt joy that they would defend her, even as she betrayed them.
This was not turning out as he had planned at all, Quirinus thought. Now he’d have to put three young people to death. He was not without mercy, especially towards women. “Do something!” he said to the priest, laying the blame at his feet.
The priest rose and shouted “Stop!”
The guards, and the questers, and all turned toward the priest.
“What is your mother’s name, child?” He asked Dianthe.
Dianthe thought it an odd question, but was glad for the reprieve. “My mother is long dead but her name was Yalena.”
“Yalena,” Quirinus repeated. He was on his feet, and pushing soldiers out of his path, coming to stand in front of Dianthe.
“She was a healer, like me,” Dianthe told him.
Quirinus took Dianthe’s face in his hands, seeing the similarities for the first time. “Yes, you have her look,” he said. Then added “and mine.”