The Flames That Bind Us

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Ch.11 The Unusual Stranger

“See, I told you they’re powerful now,” I said to Luxus as I held my flaming hands into the air for him to gawk at. The flames that emerged from my fingertips were swirling around my palms with a strong, vivid colour similar to my hair, their flickering sound echoing through the silent woods.

Luxus’s widened red-eyes gaped at the dancing sparks radiating, blinking at them several times. His expression made a proud smile creep up to my lips, but when I realized that there was nothing to be particularly proud off—since I wasn`t the one to actually upgrade myself—the feeling quickly washed down.

I tried to look positively at this; the stronger I get the closest I am to getting out of here. Though, the King hasn’t even looked at me since Grandpa’s funeral, which was three days ago.

I have been mostly locking myself inside my room anyway, with only Luxus and the servants who brought my meals as company. Often times, the Princess would come to my room and have a little chat with me, and our conversations were mostly about my life before I came here and the things we shared in common—however few there was.

But a small part of me appreciated her effort to get to know me, and by the third day I decided I had enough of lodging myself in the room, so I went out to the woods with Luxus where no one was around and I could breathe a much needed fresh air.

Given, the weather wasn`t really appropriate for an outdoor activity. It was in the middle of October and the chillness was starting to emerge, as the once green leaves turned brown and all woodland creatures sought for warmth. Even the servants had resigned into fulfilling their indoor duties.

Coldness never bothered me. In fact, I grew a bit hot under the thick red sweater I wore over black leggings, but I welcomed the cool breeze that swept over my face and tickled my exposed neck, gently swaying between the strands of my high ponytail.

Luxus, on the other hand, had every fur in place sticking out, his small legs quivering every now and then, so I wrapped a woollen black scarf around his tiny body and he clung to it so tightly to the point it looked like a second skin.

He etched closer to my burning fingers, clearly trying to drink in the warmth they offered. “Wow, you`re right. They do look somehow different,” he jabbed his chin towards a nearby tree, “you think you can knock out that tree over there?”

I waved my hands and the flames disappeared, shrugging a shoulder. “Hmm, I don’t think so, not yet anyway. Besides, I don`t know if these words are charmed against fire.”

Luxus rested on the grass, his paws were folded over one another as his tail swayed behind him. I took my seat across from him, folding my legs beneath me. I gazed at the grass, a thought nagging at the back of my mind while my hands toyed and ripped at the roots. Luxus seemed to notice my drifting state.

“Something on your mind?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I exhaled, “I just can`t help but wonder how am I going to train myself now?”

I haven`t really thought about it. I mean, I don`t think just getting stronger would help. Grandpa only taught me the basic things I needed to fight and defend, and they were mostly physical. The only things I knew how to do with my magic were fireballs, but I can`t just keep making those for the rest of my life. I needed to learn something new, but what? And how?

Luxus regarded me as if he had a thought stirring up in his mind, then he suggested, “Well, maybe you should ask Ayana to teach you. She`s like you after all.”

“She`s a water Slifer, I don`t think she knows anything about Fire Magic. But,” I scratched his chin, and he nuzzled closer to my palm. “I could ask her how she trains. She must know something.”

“Don`t you think it`s weird how she`s with the King of Freyr? I mean, what are the odds, right?”

I smiled and said, “No, I don`t think it`s weird. In fact, I think it makes sense. We`re both here for the same reason. And if I`m right, I believe that the other two remaining Slifers might be with King Calix and Queen Adria.”

“But if that’s true, then it must mean that there’s something going on, don’t you think?” he pointed out. “I mean, why exactly do you need to protect that stupid King?”

“That’s the thing, Lux,” I shrugged, “It’s like—well I don’t know what it’s like exactly, but I have a feeling deep down that something big will happen, and possibly soon, I just don’t know what to feel about it.”

It was true, and it seemed like I’ve always felt that throughout the years, I just never bothered to know what it was. I looked at the palm of my hand, clenching my fingers as I seemed to be drowning in a sea of my own thoughts.

What is it that I needed to protect that asshole of a King from? And it’s not just me, it’s Ayana as well. What is that feeling in my gut which keeps making me sense that something was approaching? Something...possibly dreadful.

I summoned fire into my hand, twirling the golden flames between my fingertips. I wonder, what does my magic behold? What can I do with it? What is its limits? So many things I wonder about my magic, so many things I don’t know about it, and I honestly have no clue if I ever will.

Luxus`s face scrunched up. “All that talk about the unknown is making my tail shudder. Let`s talk about something more important, like how that Gerard man seemed to never take his eyes off you during the funeral.”

I groaned, smacking my palm into my forehead. “Not again!”

He’s been talking about him non-stop for three days saying stupid things that aren’t true, and I’m honestly getting tired of Luxus’ odd fascination for Gerard Vastia.

“What!?” he half-squealed. “It’s true. Besides, he`s a nice view to look at. I mean, I wouldn`t mind if he looked at me too.”

“Then why don`t you go pursue him?”

He rolled his eyes at me. “Because he wasn`t staring at me all day long.”

“And I care because?” I shook my head, “It’s probably just your imagination, Lux.”

“It’s not,” he snorted.

Thankfully, he didn`t say anything else. Besides, what else can he say since he’s been talking about it over and over? It just doesn’t make sense anyway, why would Gerard Vastia be looking at me the entire time? I did catch his eyes on me a few times, but that`s probably because my appearance was unfamiliar and he was doing what the rest of the people there were doing.

Honestly, that cat`s imagination was too big for his own good.

I was snapped out from my thoughts when I heard the sound of approaching footsteps coming from my left. I noticed that Luxus looked at the direction of the footsteps with wide eyes, as if he knew the person behind them.

“Looks like I have finally found you.” A cheerful voice came from my left, making me jerk my head to look at the grinning man who stood few feet away from me. Blue eyes looked down at me, shining with humour as he folded his arms over his strong, proud chest.

My eyes turned to saucers. What in Ignoila is he doing here!? Gods, I hope he didn’t hear what Luxus said!

My face reddened for some unknown reason and I found myself scurrying off the grass to stand before the Head Officer of Defence. Please, Gods, don`t let him hear what Luxus said.

“I hope I didn`t catch you at a bad time,” he said, that grin latched to his face.

“N-no it`s alright, Mr.Vastia. You just surprised me that`s all.” I rubbed my hand over my arm, toying with the thin wool of the sweater and somehow not knowing how to stand properly.

He stepped forward, hands behind his back. I took notice that he wasn`t in his official uniform nor in white mourning clothes. He wore a fitted beige jacket over white pants, black boots, and a stripped beige and black scarf around his neck. I had to admit he looked rather good in his civilian attire.

“Just Gerard is fine, Lydia. You don’t mind me calling you that, do you?” he said.

“It`s fine.”

A slight smile drew on his lips, and he was back to gazing at my face and exploring every inch of it. I bent my head down as my cheeks heated, biting my lower lip at the strange way he looked at me. Luxus was right, he does stare a lot.

“So—“I cleared my throat, trying to say something instead of just staying still while he kept his eyes settled on me. “What are you doing here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

He dropped his gaze, his eyes averting elsewhere while he licked his lips. “Well, I was looking for you actually. I came to the palace but they told me you went out to the woods.”

“You’re not here to give me another letter, are you?” I couldn`t mask the nervousness of my tone—nor the blatant awkwardness.

He shook his head, his lips peeling back to show me the set of perfect pearly-white teeth. “No, no, I’m just here to check up on you, see how you’re doing and all,” he explained, then quickly added, “Well, you know, Lucius ordered me to check up on you every now and then.”

He seemed to be slightly blushing as he tried to look anywhere else but me. His kindness made me smile, knowing that he’s probably a very busy man yet he still took the time to check up on someone who was practically a stranger to him.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

“Yes—well, um, shall we take a walk?” he offered, almost sounding hopeful. Even if I wanted to decline his offer, the way those pure blue eyes were pouring at my flamed-ones made it difficult to say no.

“Y-yeah, sure,” I turned to Luxus, “Let`s go, Lux.”

He was curled up on the ground, licking his paw. “No thanks. I’m pretty comfortable here.”

I wanted to grab his tail and yank at it hard, for I knew he was doing this on purpose. That tiny, little bastard! His head perked up at me and he gave me a cheeky grin, exposing his small, short canine. I threw a glare at him before I turned to meet the waiting man.

This time, Gerard was staring at Luxus with a hint of wonder, but snapped his attention back at me. “Shall we?” I nodded, and he led me beside him through the crowded trees and deeper into the peaceful woods.

***

“So, how are you finding life in the grand palace of Imarnia?” Gerard asked as we walked, the sound of birds and tree branches breaking underneath our steps accompanying our ears. He looked at me with the outmost interest as if he was keen to find out every little thing about my life here.

His question though, made my body flinch and for me to exhale rather heavily. I just hope he didn’t notice how uncomfortable and nervous his question made me, and that was only his first.

I mean what exactly am I going to tell him? That the King treats me like shit and hates my entire existence, that he called me a spoiled whore, and that he beat the hell out of me when I refused to come back with him, or maybe the fact that our first joining was here in these very woods?

“Uh, it’s good. It’s not like Vera obviously, but it`s good,” I lied, hoping to Gods that he believed it. Well, it wasn`t exactly a lie, more like a half-truth.

“Oh.” That was all what he said. I breathed a sigh of relief underneath my breath, glad that he didn’t insist any further.

“How’s the King treating you though? I know King Gabriel is an outstanding King, but I never really got to know more of him as a person. He`s rather a very discreet man.”

He`s an ass that`s what he is!

I composed my face from twisting into a disgusted expression and even managed a tight closed smile, but it was a smile nonetheless. Though it caught my notice that he specifically mentioned the King, so instead of answering his question I dodged it by saying, “So I’m guessing you know about the whole Slifer thing, huh?”

He nodded, which didn`t come as a surprise. He probably knew since he was Grandpa`s friend. Although, I had no idea how close they were. Grandpa never told me about him. I didn`t even know that he had friends. The thought of my grandpa brought an aching to my heart, and I tried to focus on Gerard instead.

“At the funeral, I noticed that you picked up Grandpa`s coffin quite easily despite its weights. Is that your magic?” I asked, and his mouth turned into a lopsided smile.

“Strength Magic,” he answered, “that is my speciality. Comes in handy when you are in my position.”

“So can you lift anything? Like that tree over there?” I pointed to a nearby tree that had a trunk thrice as thick as the other ones around it.

His eyes examined the bulking tree with amusement. “Well, I don`t know about that tree. But I once lifted a boulder that got thrown over an inn. I think that was the heaviest thing I ever lifted.”

“That sounds cool.”

“Not as cool as being an ancient wizard who can control fire. I read about your kind when I was a child. The stories always spoke about how powerful and magnificent your magic was, and the beauty of those who wielded it,” he regarded me with warm eyes, “I can see that very clearly.”

Blood crept up to my cheeks, and they felt overly heated. Oh my…

He seemed to realize what he said, looking away with a redness on his defined cheeks. For moments, we both didn`t say anything and kept our eyes on the road ahead. But the silence was quickly broken when he spoke again, “You didn`t answer me.”

“About what?”

“The King,” he clarified.

“Oh.” I kind of hoped he had let that go. It seems there`s no escaping it. “The King is a very quiet person, but he treats me with respect and he`s kind enough to me.” I tried not to cringe at how fake I sounded, and I prayed that he didn`t catch it.

“I see.” Somehow he seemed unconvinced, but he didn’t take the matter any further. Thank Gods!

“So, you’re pretty much comfortable here?” he raised an eyebrow, seeming doubtful.

I put on my best grin, though it felt flat on my face. “Yep!”

“That’s good.”

After that he didn`t ask any question, which I was more than thankful for. We kept walking in silence for a while, but it wasn’t awkward or anything now, just peaceful. Gerard seemed to be marvelling the bizarre and unique plants and flowers that grew off the bushes. I on the other hand, didn`t share his fascination, an irksome thought whirling at the back of my mind.

It saddened me that I was faking being content with the King. It made me feel that there was something wrong with me for getting a King like him, like I have done something to upset the Gods.

I wished that I was able to talk about King Gabriel like Ayana talked about King Morrison. I was slightly jealous of her, she spoke every word with a genuine smile, yet I have to hide how the King truly treats me. And I have to put up with it for Gods know how long—

My wandering thoughts didn`t allow me to pay attention to where I was heading, and it all happened in less than a second as my foot tangled with something that was both hard and soft. I didn’t have time to embrace myself, for I quickly tripped on that strange object, my body falling to the ground and my face meeting head first with the dirt.

There were three things that came to my hearing. One; the voice of my own squeal as I landed with a loud thud. Two; Gerard’s voice calling my name. And three; the sound of a cry mixed with a yell that seemed to emanate from the object I tripped on.

Gerard quickly bent down to help me stand on my feet, my face completely red that I wanted to bury my face in my hands and scream at how incredibly clumsy I was. What is with me and falling off my ass these days!?

“Are you alright?” he asked me with concern in his voice, helping me straighten my posture.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I assured him, irritatingly cleaning off the dirt that stuck on my hands and clothes.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going, kid!” A voice boomed from somewhere, making both of us turn our heads to find the source of that clearly annoyed voice. We looked around in confusion, observing any sign of a human-figure, but there seemed to be no one.

“Down here, bird-brains!” the voice spoke again. This time, my eyes dropped to find a very short-looking man eyeing us up crossly. He folded his small arms over his strangely hard-looking chest, tapping his boot on the ground.

My eyes widened at the appearance of this man. His features were very manly, and handsome even, with a strong squared jaw covered with a dark brown stubble, a small nose, and bright green eyes hidden underneath heavy light brown eyebrows.

The only odd thing about him was his height, and how short his arms and legs were. He literally was as tall as my entire leg, reaching to my upper thigh. His appearance was that of a child, but his face was of a grown man.

How unusual? Maybe he’s an elf? But elves didn`t look that. They were taller—not as tall as an average wizard—but still taller than him. And they also had pointy ears, long spiked tails, and multi-coloured skin. This man had normal fair skin, and no tail.

“Ah!” I startled, realizing that I just tripped over this poor man and didn’t apologize. I was too busy gawking at his odd looks, which he seemed to disapprovingly notice. He probably was lying underneath the tree so that’s way I couldn’t see him, not to mention his extremely short form. “I’m so sorry, sir! I really didn’t see you there, I’m really sorry!”

He snorted, looking clearly unsatisfied. “Well, you better be, kid! Are you blind or something!? Can’t you see people are sleeping here?”

“Hey, she already said that she’s sorry, you don’t have to be so hard on her.” Gerard put a defensive hand on my shoulder, eyeing the man before him with distaste.

“Oh, I’m sorry, did I interrupt your little love-birds session?” he sarcastically sneered. This time, I was completely positive that my face would explode from embarrassment anytime now.

“What a strange looking elf,” I quietly whispered to Gerard, but somehow the other man heard me. His nostrils flared, and I swear he looked at me like he was about to jump and choke me to death.

“What!? How rude! I’m not an elf! I’m a normal person, you little—“ his tantrum suddenly stopped, his eyes slowly widening until they appeared as if they were about to burst.

“I think he’s a traveller,” Gerard said to my ear, gesturing at the brown bag that lay behind the little man. I also noticed that he wore a dark green travelling cloak that was fastened by a golden brooch that was the shape of a flame.

However, the man didn’t seem to bother with Gerard’s statement, he simply just stood there surveying every inch of my appearance, from my flame-coloured eyes to my matching hair.

He looked as if he was trying to assure something, or maybe he was just surprised by my looks? But why would he? I mean clearly he would win in the ‘weirdest-looking’ contest.

“Oh my!” he gasped, his entire behaviour changing. I raised an eyebrow at the way his eyes sparkled as if he had found a long-lost treasure.

“Could you be Lydia, the fire Slifer?” I had to admit, his question made both me and Gerard look at each other with shock clearly stamped on our faces.

I turned to the now-smiling man. “Yes,” I answered, suspiciously.

How on Ignolia did that man know who I was? And most importantly, what I was?

Suddenly, the man grinned widely that for a moment I thought that his face will peel off. He clapped his hands together and yelled a cry of joy. “Finally! I’ve found you!” he half-shouted, happiness painting his expression. “You have no idea how long I have searched for you.”

Confused doesn’t even start with describing how I felt right now. I had no idea who that man who seemed to know me was. I didn’t even know his name while he knew mine.

“Lydia, do you know him?” Gerard asked me, his eyes not leaving the thrilled-looking small man. I shook my head, half confused and half amazed by that man`s sudden change of character. He was yelling at us a moment ago now he looks like he’s about to soar high into the sky.

“Oh, I haven’t formally introduced myself, forgive me for that,” he limped past us to a large rock near a tree and climbed it. He stood proudly atop the rock, his fist resting near his chest, and looking as tall as a giant. With a broad beam, he declared, “My name is Aramis Lester, and I’m here to make you stronger, fire mistress.”

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