18 The Time of Love and Mourning*
Anna had been unwilling to accept it when she'd seen it herself, but there was no doubt about it. A man had exploded from eating that single piece of fruit. She had not intended on following Phillip and the Elf, but upon reading the letter he had written to her, she had desired nothing more than to tell him she loved him back. She had followed them, and seen what they had. She had been unable to move from the shock, even as Phillip had told the elf that he was going to report this to his brother as soon as possible. That he would be riding off at first light.
She was not there to see his searching eyes as he left the village. She was in the Orchard, reading over the letter again and again until she could not help the tears spill over.
She hated that there was a part of herself that believed he'd merely used her. That she was merely a fling. But she'd seen the truth in his eyes. He did not have to spend every evening with her, but he had. And she had loved it.
He was not a bad person like Carter had said. Though with how knowledgeable he was, it was clear his family was far more influential that she had originally been led to believe. No ordinary child would have knowledge like his. And...she loved him for it.
Loved him, and yet not had the courage to say it when she had the chance. Now, when would they meet again. His letter was unclear despite the depth of his words. He truly, truly loved her, and intended to marry her. He had even given her a ring with the letter.
"Wear it with pride and happiness, for if you wear it with anything else my grandmother will surely haunt you".
The words had made her giggle between her tears. The ring was simple to any who didn't know better, carved on the inside with the words 'forever and always'. But the metal itself was Anthrite. then most expensive substance in the known world, a metal with crystalline qualities. She had tied it on a string around her neck and put it beneath her top. She would indeed wear with pride and happiness until the day he returned for her.
It was only several days later when her joy was crushed. When, late in the night, her home had been broken into, and she was taken against her will. Her father had attempted to defend her, and been killed in the process. She would never forget the image of her father bleeding out on the floor, reaching for her in a last ditch effort to save her.
It was not to be.
She was thrown into a carrige, the door locked behind her, and in the seat opposite, with a lamp by his head, sat an older and leaner version of her Phillip.
"Who the hell are you!" she shouted, "You killed my father!"
"Do be quiet girl," the man sighed, "Or I'll have to make you suffer a lot more than I intended to".
Anna glared at him, "Who are you?"
"My name, Anna, is Francois Kildare," he replied, spitting her name like it was a foul substance, "I am Phillip's oldest brother".
Anna's eyes widened, and she sat down on the seat opposite him in shock, "...Kil...Kildare?"
"At least you know that much," Francois frowned in disapproval, "Now be quiet and sit still. The last thing I want to do on this journey is hear the whims of some country bumpkin".
Anna had no argument. Kildare? She'd known Phillip's family was influential but...direct relations with the Emperor? Good lord, what one earth was one of the Emperor's relations doing in Cordon?
Anna was not to have an answer for several days. They passed many farming villages before they entered a mountain range, and finally stopped at a mining camp. A huge mining camp.
"I would say welcome to Jarrica, but I don't think anyone feels welcome here," Francois spoke. The door opened, and a couple of burly men stepped forward, taking Anna deep into the mines. Her eyes took a long time to adjust, but when they did the men were leading her into a cell, and locking her wrists into manacles. They left, closing the cell door behind her.
"Is this her?" asked a deep voice from the side. A man with golden hair and brown eyes stepped from the darkness, older than Francois who had come to stand before the bars as well. Despite the light, Anna could see their similar features.
"This is her," Francois confirmed.
"Anna," the man spat. He stared at her for a moment, appraising her head to toe before he scoffed, "We'll I'll admit she'd quite pretty, but that hardly justifies his adamance. If he's decided to be obedient, then perhaps I'll let him f*** her before she dies".
Francois looked indifferent.
"I wouldn't want my brother to be tainted, father," Francois admitted slowly.
So this was Duke Kildare? He was not in the least bit impressive in these dark mines.
"Bring him in," called the Duke.
A door opened to the side and a scuffle was heard.
"Get off me!" snapped a familiar voice, "I can walk on my own!"
Anna's eyes widened as Phillip appeared before the bars, and he froze on the spot as he made eye contact with her. Then he launched himself for the gate, only for chains to drag him back. He fought, but it was no use.
"Nice of you to join us, brother," Francois spoke.
"Let her go, she has nothing to do with this," Phillip snapped.
"Nothing?" asked the Duke, "Not only did you attempt to sabotage a long awaited trade alliance with the Elves, you also insisted on marrying this...filth!"
"The Volotun Fruit isn't safe!" Phillip said, "How many times do I have to tell you? Taking it more than once will result in death!"
"Ridiculous, you have no proof but the word of an exiled elf," the Duke insisted.
"This concerns the good of the entire empire, if you don't act you'll have an epidemic on your hands!" Phillip insisted, "If the Emperor wants more powerful soldiers, father this is not the way to do it. It's not worth the risks involved".
"Be quiet! You disobedient child, I should have been harder on you," the Duke stated, "Now, your ridiculous statements have landed you in this position. Bring it!"
A man walked through the same door, in his hand, a purple fruit the size of an apple, but with skin like a plum.
"What are you doing?" Phillip asked, his tone grave. as he watched the man pass him, and then enter the cage where Anna was chained. Phillip pulled on his chains with such strength that he was able to rush forward to the bars, only stopped by the gate closing once more.
"No!" Phillip shouted, "Anna don't eat it!"
"Like she has a choice," the Duke stated, "This is what happens when you are disobedient and start to have feelings for someone beneath you. Learn well boy, I don't want to have to teach this lesson again".