I still remember when Max’s mom died. It was such a weird time for all of us. I had to be about three or four at the time. Lady Lucia was the one who convinced Max’s father, Lord Nathanial, to take me in. She used to bake fresh bread for us. She called me “Lilline.” Then one day that just stopped. Then there was standing before the wooden box that held her lifeless body. Then it was watching Lord Nathanial on his hands and knees, torn apart to the core of his soul. I remember wiping Max’s tears and hugging her close to me.
I still remember when we went to school together for the first time. A young boy stole Max’s comb. He pushed her down, and I remember the hot feeling I got in my chest. I unleashed barrages of fierce punches on this child. I remember the men in white, arriving as they always did. Carrying me away and hooking me up to their machine to drain the bursts of power that overcame me.
I remember when Max and I used to run through the halls. She would pretend to be a villain, and I would be the valiant hero, tasked with defeating her. She had heart, for sure. But that didn’t last forever.
“Maybe I don’t have what it takes,” Max said. I remember that too. She said that when Lord Nathanial started talking to her about ruling the Shadow Kingdom as its queen. We were fourteen years old.
“It will be fun, Max,” I said. “Everyone will love you.”
“You should know by now, I don’t care about any of that.”
I remember when Max first started skipping school. We were about sixteen years old. I tried my best to keep her focused. One day Lord Nathanial caught her. He took both of us to the throne room and lectured us for hours on what it meant to be royalty.
“Do you understand?” he asked at the end of his lecture.
“No,” Max answered. “I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. My mother spent her entire life caring for others. In the end she died. She died young and sick. I can’t see a reason to uphold these values when I could be dead at any moment anyway.”
“It’s not about that, Maxine,” Nathanial said. “I understand how you feel. I miss your mother very much. But she regretted not one moment of her life. She married a man she loved. She gave birth to the most important person in her life. Just because her life ended doesn’t mean it was not worth living. You just need to find something that makes your life worth living.”
“I will watch over Lady Maxine in the future, your lordship,” I said sheepishly. “I will ensure that she doesn’t miss lessons again.”
I had never seen such a genuine smile from Lord Nathanial.
“Lilly, you have protected my daughter from many things over the past several years,” he said. “I thank you for taking her into your care.”
“I don’t need you to babysit me, Lilly.”
“Max, I’m not trying to smother you. I just want to make sure you get the best out of life. That’s what friends are for.”
Max scoffed and turned away, but through her scowl, I could see her holding back a grin. That was enough for me.
After that, Max didn’t skip school anymore. But she never grew to like it either, going through the motions every step of the way.
I remember when one of our big dances approached and a handsome gentleman asked me to go with him. I remember Max’s scowl. The way her red eyebrows sat flat and low over her blank eyes. She was envious of the boy. So I accommodated. I said no. The two of us would go together as we always had.
I remember when we slow danced together, and she leaned in towards me. I held her tight, and for the first time in our lives, Max asked me a very big question.
“Lilly, what do you want to do? After this is over I mean?”
“We can go back to the palace if you want.”
“That’s not what I mean. Someday I’m going to take the throne, Lilly. I’m going to live in that palace for the rest of my life. But what about you? Don’t you want anything more than that? Don’t you want more than me?”
I remember her face starting to swell and her breaths becoming more heavy. I kissed her on the cheek and she looked at me with puzzled eyes.
“Maxine Avengard, I am going to become your general. I will lead your army, and protect you with everything I have. I don’t quite know how to fight yet, but I’ll learn. I will learn and I will unleash hell on anyone who opposes you. We’ve been together for as long as I can remember. How could I want anything more than you?”
I had never seen Max turn so red. She looked down and started to mutter.
“What did you say?”
“I said, there’s an instructor in the palace who can show us some sword skills. If you wanted to learn how to fight. I’ve never really been interested in combat myself, but if you’re going to fight to protect me, then I’ll protect you too.”
I remember meeting our instructor, Rayne. The days we spent just learning the stances. The forms. Never once even swinging the blade.
“Maxine, you are simply too aggressive,” Rayne said. “You’ll never be a calculated fighter if you’re always leaning towards your opponent. You have to let your opponent’s movements dictate your own. You have to be reactive, rather than proactive.”
“I’m not going to die fighting, Rayne,” Max shouted. “I want to stay in control of the fight.”
“You’re only in control if you always know what’s coming next,” Rayne answered.
I was picking it up faster than Max. My life had always been a chain reaction. The men in white and their machines, that they used to drain my rare energy taught me not to use my powers. Waking up one day and having no parents taught me to keep the ones you love close to your heart. Meeting her. Falling in love with Max. That taught me to wield my heart in my blade and protect her with everything I had.
I remember seeing a side of Max that I never had before. Our final lesson had Max and I facing off against each other. We had to take that precision, and that reactive nature, and apply it in the most decisive match yet. I remember the way Max bolted towards me, still maintaining her proactive nature, in spite of Rayne’s warnings. I parried each of her strikes, keeping her moving closer to my reach. Max’s downward slash gave me all the opportunity I needed to guard and shift, pivoting, while causing her to stagger forward. With a swift kick to the back she fell to the ground.
I reached to pull her up but as she stood, she shook my hand away and returned to her stance. With her aggressive form I was able to predict and avoid all of her attacks. But she kept swinging. Something in her form was changing as each strike missed. I watched her focused expression turn into a vicious grin, her eyes filled with vengeful lust. Each of her strikes, just a little bit harsher than the last, lined with a warrior’s energy. I guarded one last strike with my own blade, but the sword broke against her fierce swing, flying into the air and landing beside me, sticking into the ground. My sword dissolved into black smoke, and I was now at the mercy of her decision. Then she did it. She pointed her blade at me.
I remember when I lost control. Just as they had when I was younger, my eyes changed when I felt the danger. The symbols appeared on my body and that same burst of power from my young days returned to me.
I can’t remember. I can’t remember what I did after that. I just remember feeling like I was going to lose, and waking up in the same machine. I remember the fear. Looking at my hands to see small blood stains. I remember looking around the room, shaking, afraid. Where was she? Where was Max? I jumped out of the incubation chamber and dashed for the palace entrance.
I remember the way the guards met me at the gate, with their spears pointed towards me. I remember the way Rayne looked at me when she gave the order. The guilt in her eyes. That her own training regimen led to this. I was a danger to the crown. A danger to Max. The guards charged at me, and using the very reactive style Rayne taught me, I dodged their strikes and incapacitated them with my blade. Then I ran again. Around the palace perimeter, searching for a way in.
I remembered a special entrance that Max and I used to get into the palace when she’d leave school. It was a small window under the bridge. I climbed through the window and made my way to the infirmary where she was laying. That’s when I saw what I had done.
I remember when Max lost her eye. Watching her lay in the bed with the patch, clutching her wound with shock filling her remaining eye.
“Why would you come here?” she asked.
“Max, I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened to me. All I ever wanted was to protect you. I’m so sorry.”
“That was both of us. I got caught up in the moment, and I almost hurt you. It was only right that you defend yourself. Besides, not like there was much around here to look at anyway.”
“This isn’t funny, Max. I’ve ruined your eye.”
“You should know by now, I don’t care about anything like that. Lilly, they’re not going to let you stay.”
I remember what Max gave me. She reached into her drawer to retrieve a golden necklace, with a black gem in the center.
“Rayne couldn’t stop you when you were having that burst. You defeated her in a single strike. You’re too strong to exist in this kingdom. But I’m not going to do this without you. I want you to have this necklace. This is my promise to you, Lilly. Get yourself out of here. Go somewhere safe and start a new life. When I take the throne, I will find you. We’ll do this again.”
“How ironic, that you would be the one protecting me. I love you, Max. You’re going to make a great queen someday.”
“You just make it out so you can live to see it.”
I remember Max’s kiss. I remember my tears as they fell down my face, and the realization that I might never see her again. I remember holding her hand. I remember her trembling slowing down to an abrupt stop. I remember her determined smile, and the fire it started in my heart.
I will continue to wait. I will wait as long as I have to for Max to find me. I still remember, and I pray I never forget.