The Flames That Bind Us

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18. Imarnia`s Grand Ball

There was no words to describe how much I wanted the ground beneath me to crack open and devour my body and soul entirely.

It was like my limbs suddenly turned into stone. I was frozen in the spot as the curious sets of eyes roamed over Lysa and I, mainly they settled their gazes on me. I fought the urge to turn around and crawl back to my room, feeling my heart rate growing higher by the second. Even my palms were sweating and that only made me more annoyed at myself.

Why the hell was I so nervous about this? I knew for a fact I didn’t give a damn about what others think about me or my appearance, so why did I feel like I was about to melt into a puddle?

“OK, this was more than I expected,” Lysa whispered, a look of anxiousness crossing over her face as she looked at the murmuring crowd before us. She turned to me, patting my hand. “But you’ll be fine. Here, follow my steps.”

It literally looked as if she was dragging a statue behind her. My legs cooperated clumsily, feeling like they were ten times heavier. But I had to give it to her. Despite her small form and even though she was a head shorter than me—and that was with her wearing higher heels than mine—she pretty much managed to pull me alongside her.

For my part, I mostly focused on the shiny marble floor that reflected my otherwise troubled face. I could feel something shuffling at the hems of my dress and I glanced over my shoulders to see a black tail sticking out of the inside of my dress, my ankles brushing something soft and fluffy.

Great, even Luxus took to hiding. Oh how I wish I could transform into a cat and hide underneath someone’s dress right now.

So many voices came into my hearing and I tried to block them all, but I couldn’t help but catch the usual ‘Look at her hair!’ and ‘Is she real? Could it really be?’ I even tried to distract myself with looking at the ballroom, and considering I’ve never seen one before it was beautiful and radiant.

I even caught the site of a long table filled with various cuisines and made a mental note to spend the rest of the party there.

It felt like an eternity, but the hushed voices finally seemed to turn down. Lysa led me forward and soon we were standing not a few feet away from the Princess and who I recognized as her fiancé, though I’ve only seen him from a distant.

They were engaging in a conversation with some people who looked as if they were dipped in diamonds. “Lis!” I heard Lysa call out and she tugged on my arm and headed to where the Princess was standing.

Lis turned towards us, the fabric of her golden dress catching light thanks to the bright yellow pixie stones scattered here and there. Her dress was form-fitting, gliding down to the floor and it looked like small, golden gems were sewn into the textile.

She looked absolutely stunning that for a moment I felt my mouth drop—then again she was a Princess so I don’t know why I expected her to look anything less than perfect. But the brightness of her gown was nowhere compared to how her face lit when she spotted us.

“Oh, my!” she clamped a hand over her mouth, her eyes shining as she raked over me. “Lydia, you look...absolutely beautiful!” She beamed and I felt my face heating, kind of matching the colour of my dress.

“Thank you. You look beautiful too.” I casted her a shy smile, barley able to lift my eyes off the ground.

“I must say I’m very pleased I asked Lysa to make you a dress. She has really outdone herself.”

Lysa snorted from beside me. “Oh, please! This is nothing compared to what I have stored in there.” She tapped her head, sending me a wink.

Lis laughed, shaking her head. “I haven’t seen you this excited since you convinced Gabriel to make a suit for him. I’m telling you, Lydia, this girl spent whole two days trailing after my brother and trying to get him into a dress shirt just to prove a point.”

I giggled as the thought came to my mind. It wasn’t hard imagining Lysa shoving a shirt down the King’s head since she stroke me as the kind of person who would try to fit anyone into everything and anything.

“So, this is the Lydia you always talk about?” her fiancé, whom I knew his name was David, chirped in as he gave me a smile that matched the woman’s at his side.

“Oh yes! Lydia, this is my fiancé, David,” she introduced us and I held back the giggle when he took my hand and kissed it, bowing his head slightly. I knew he was only being a gentleman but I’ve never had my hand kissed in that way, so I just took in on the unfamiliar action.

“Lis literally spent a whole day telling me about you, and I must say it is a great honour to meet someone of your kind.” I didn’t know how to respond to that so I just smiled, though it came out a bit awkward.

I wasn’t sure how much he knew about me and if Princess Lis had told him everything, but I decided I didn’t want to know. It didn’t cross me when he was looking at me admiringly, almost as if he was seeing something extraordinary.

Were Slifers really that astonishing? I mean I knew they were very ancient and rare and it’s been decades since one was last sighted. But why do people act as if being a Slifer equals to being a god? Or maybe I was reading too much into it? I mean, I would be amazed if I witnessed a rare being only told in storybooks.

My three companions continued chatting and I would only contribute when asked or if I felt like it. Overall, I started feeling better now that eyes weren’t penetrating me anymore. Everyone had gone back to whatever they were doing. Laughter, along with the soft playing of music, was filling the ballroom.

I felt something moving under my dress and I caught sight of Luxus’s black form slipping away, zigzagging through people’s legs and heading towards the food table. No one had even noticed that there was a black cat climbing the beige coloured table cloth then sticking its paws out for some mouth-watering grilled shrimps.

That lucky bastard! I was starving.

I shook my head and intended to look elsewhere besides Luxus feasting on those poor pawns. I noticed that the King was nowhere in sight, or maybe I couldn’t see him thanks to the swarm of people in front of me.

But either way it was better. I really didn’t want to face the King right now.

Someone tapped on my shoulder and when I turned my head to see who it was a big smile—accompanied by a blush—appeared on my lips. Gerard Vastia was standing tall, a grin plastered across his lips and wearing a sea-blue tunic with a white sash that had the Congress’s emblem sewn on it across his mid-rift.

“Lydia,” he breathed out, his eyes travelling all over me. I noticed his cheeks growing redder by each look he gave me. “You look absolutely breath-taking.” Even without saying that, it was evident on his face that he thought so.

Again, my head dropped low. “Thank you.”

I heard him clear his throat. “Well...actually, I came here to ask you if you would like to dance.”

At that, I snapped my head up and noticed that people were moving excitedly to the centre of the ballroom. I didn’t know how to dance, but I definitely wanted to. I always thought that it would be nice to dance with someone and be completely swept, and Gerard seemed like that kind of someone.

“Sure, I would love to.” I grasped his outstretched hand, turning to look at the three besides me but their eyes were already on us.

I noticed that Lysa winked at me and Lis gave me a kind of encouraging smile, and without saying a word I let Gerard lead me.

We came to a stop and he wrapped both his arms around my waist, feeling my face heating up at the sudden closeness. I placed my hands on either side of his shoulders, imitating what I saw the women doing with their partners.

He was taller than me, but I didn’t have to crank my neck to look at him. And just as a different tone of music started playing—this one slower than the other—we started to sway. Thankfully, I didn’t manage to stomp on his foot, and just let him take lead.

“To be honest with you, I was really surprised to see you here tonight,” he said, his eyes never leaving my face.

“Why?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know, it’s just...I thought you wouldn’t be...err...allowed.” I was hoping he didn’t feel me tense as he searched my eyes for any kind of reaction that would conform his words.

But I just shrugged it off with a smile that I hoped was convincing. “Why would you say that?”

“Hmm, well I just have this feeling...ne-never mind! Forget what I said.” And forget is what I did, at least I tried to push it back into my head. I couldn’t miss the tone of suspiciousness and honestly I didn’t want to know what he thought was really happening with me.

Because I had a feeling that he didn’t believe what I told him that day he came asking me how I was doing. And I didn’t want to add Gerard to the list of people pitying me so I was glad he didn’t brought the subject up.

“What about you?” I asked. “Do you always attend these kind of events?”

He chuckled, his eyes drifting before settling them back on me. “Only when the high Congress members are invited. Usually, I rarely participate in these kind of events and to be honest I didn’t want to come.”

“Well, what changed your mind?”

It took him a few seconds to answer. “You.”

I had to admit that this had taken me back a little, and the blush found its way to my cheeks again. Suddenly, it was really embarrassing to be so close to his face I could practically see the lights from the pixie stones reflecting in his eyes.

“R-really?” I didn’t know why I cleared my throat even though there was no particular lump in there.

“I thought that I might be able to see you, even though I doubted you would be there. But I had to take a chance, even if it is a small one.” I could just feel his eyes lingering at my face, but I was too shy to look straight at him so I just focused on the tiny freckle on his ear.

I don’t even know how I managed to say those next words. “Why would you come all the way here just to see me?”

There was a short silence, and I could just feel the debate going on in his mind whether to answer me or not. Or more properly, how to phrase that answer. But whatever answer he had stored up I didn’t hear it, for the second he opened his mouth a voice interrupted us.

“Mind if I have the next dance?” Shivers. That was what came down my spine when the voice spoke. I didn’t even attempt to turn around for I knew whom that deep, husked voice belonged to.

Our feet immediately stopped dancing, and Gerard glanced behind my head and I felt him let go of me. His calm features suddenly turned hard as he stepped away from me, and I found myself wanting to scream at him and tell him to stay.

But there was no way he could hear what was going on in my mind. “No, not at all, Your Majesty.” He gave a small bow, then with one last look at me he turned and strutted away until I lost him in the crowd of people.

A shadow swept at my side, and in a second he was standing where Gerard stood. I didn’t look away or looked at the ground, instead my eyes focused on him and I attempted to form my face into something neutering.

For the first time since I met him, he wasn’t dressed in a black tunic and a black cloak, though his clothes remained black nonetheless. He wore a tuxedo. And it took every inch of my will power not to keep my eyes glued on him for too long, for the suit tucked every inch of his body perfectly. It seemed like it was moulded into him, showing the hardness of his chest and the width and broadness of his shoulders. Even his hair was brushed back instead of falling over his forehead.

Another one of those wretched feelings came over me and I felt something hot bubbling up in my stomach. I couldn’t keep away the images of shredding those clothes off of him and having my way with him for the life of me.

“May I?” He offered me his hand. There was nothing I could do but stare at it for a few seconds, and for a moment I wanted to scream no! But I glanced at the people around us and they were looking at us curiously.

And so with much reluctance, though I tried desperately to hide it, I lifted my arm and placed the tips of my fingers on his palm. I swear it was like I’ve touched a lightning bolt, the sparks went all the way to my arms and then my whole body. And surprisingly, I noticed that the same thing seemed to happen to him as well.

He also seemed to take his time with my hand. At first his fingers clasped the back, gently, then he moved our hands to the air, his fingers loosening their hold only to interlock with my own fingers, which I’ve noticed were trembling.

And just when I though the worst was over, his other arm tugged on my waist and my body crashed into his chest, my lips giving out a small gasp. And then I felt it; fire. But it was only his hand being placed around the small of my back.

I was afraid I would melt under him right here and now, but thankfully I managed to stay solid. His height didn’t match Gerard’s, I had to crank my neck up just so I could look directly at those stormy eyes. I knew I had to place my free hand on his shoulders, and I slowly did, taking my time with it. And it’s then that it had dwelled on me that I was about to dance with none other than the man I loathed most; the King of Imarnia.

My breasts were practically slammed into his chest, pressed together so he had the perfect view as if the dress I was wearing didn’t already give them a bounce. I had to keep my breathing steady, for I could feel how tensed his chest was even through the black fabric he wore.

It wasn’t just how close we were. It was also how a wave of warmth seemed to emanate from him even though I was the one who felt as if I had caught flames. I honestly don’t know if I hated it and wanted to pull away instantly, or I wanted to lean in further into the heat.

But there was nothing I could do about it anyway, for we started moving. Slowly, gently, swiftly, matching the rhythm of the music. He swayed me right and left, neither of us taking our gazes off each other. I wanted so badly to look anywhere else but his intense eyes, but it’s almost like my face was pulled to his by some invisible force.

His eyes left my face for a moment, only to be cast down towards my dress. I couldn’t mistake it, the sharp intake of breath he gave and the lust filling his grey orbs. He wanted me. He lusted for me. And I wasn’t entirely sure I didn’t feel the same...

“Are you mad?” I blurted out, surprising myself and him for a split-second.

“What?” He tilted his head.

I gulped. “Are you angry that I came to the ball?” Why was I asking this? I knew I didn’t really care if he was angry so why was I questioning him about it?

His lips turned into a straight line before he answered, and I could tell he faced some kind of difficulty voicing his answer.

“No. Not really.”

I wanted him to say yes, I really wanted him to. I wanted him to admit that he loathed seeing me here in the presence of his people because honestly it would be less confusing than what was happening now.

“I knew Lis would try to get you here in some way. And I guess...you kind of deserve it...since you saved her life and all. I also hear you don’t go outside your room unless it’s to go to the forest, so perhaps this was a good way for you to meet people.”

He wasn’t looking at me when he said those words, he looked at the crowd, almost like he was avoiding the sight of me as he formed each sentence.

“I thought you said you didn’t want me to be mixing with people of high class?” I tried to hide the surprise in my voice.

“Well...” His eyes stayed on one of my exposed shoulders. “I was angry. It was very irrational of me to presume you would not speak to those around you. Of course you are bound to have some interaction with others.”

“Were you also that angry when you called me a whore? Or did you just presume that it was okay to do that?” This time I couldn’t help the tinge of anger sizzling in my body, or the hardness of my voice.

We stopped mid-dance, and instead of him glaring at me like I expected, he kept his eyes on my shoulder. I saw his chiselled jaw tense as if every word I said were like needles piercing his skin. I kept searching his face for any answer, but he just kept quiet. He completely ignored me when he resumed back to swaying my body, his hold on me less tight than before.

“Who was that Aramis man we met that day in the fair?” he asked me, seeming to want to drop our previous subject. I considered whether on answering him or not, but saw that there was no point in not to.

“I met him by accident in the forest when I was with Gerard.” It didn’t slip me when his jaw tensed again and his eyes hardened at the mention of Gerard’s name.

“Gerard Vastia? You were with him?” His voice was lower than usual.

I nodded. “He came to check on me.”

“Do you know him?”

“My grandpa did.”

“Mhmm.” That was all he said before he went silent again, and I took that as a sign he wanted me to continue what I was saying.

“Anyway, Aramis said that he was looking for me and that he was a messenger of the God, Decimus,” The King’s eyebrows shot at that, but he didn’t say a thing. “...and that he was here to teach me how to become a true Slifer.”

“And you believe him?”

“Yes—err...I mean, I don’t have a bad feeling regarding him.” I don’t know why I was telling him all of that. But I guess it was better than us just staring silently at each other.

“So, he’s training you at the moment?”

“Well, not really. I mean not yet, anyway. He says I have to—” and at that I clamped my mouth shut, blushing furiously as Aramis’s words came flashing back. I can’t tell him that, can I? I mean it would be highly embarrassing to talk about, but at the same time I might get what I wanted, or needed.

He was about to say something first, but his eyes caught something behind me. And the next thing I knew, I was twirled in my place, my dress flaring and looking like live flames were being swirled.

When my back came crashing to him, he held me securely, lowering his back as his face dipped down to my cheeks. I could feel his breath fanning my ears and I couldn’t even brace myself for the shivers for it was at that moment that he whispered the words to me.

“Tonight. In your room.”

And with that, he let me go and started to pace the other way, leaving me struck in realization. What he said, the way he said it. I knew what it meant. I knew what his words implied.

The way I felt contradicted with my dress entirely. I felt cold, down to every inch of my body. It’s almost like his words were ice cubes being placed everywhere on my skin. They left me shivering, no matter how much I was telling myself that this was exactly what I was aiming for.

It wasn’t until a woman with braided white hair and dark brown skin stood directly in front of me that I managed to snap myself out of the surfacing memories. I tucked them away, deep where they emerged and focused on the woman. She was tall and thin, with a sharp face that was aged but nowhere did it hide her obvious beauty. She wore dark gold robes, with the Congress’s emblem gleaming above her heart.

I blinked at her a couple of times, and noticed that she had her ebony eyes settled on me, a small smile tugged on her lips.

“Hello.” She tilted her head slightly.

I blinked again.

I knew who that woman was. She’s Agatha Alastair, the Head of the Congress of Magic. But the question was, why was she talking to me? I noticed that her eyes drifted to my hair before keeping them back on me. “Um...hi.”

“I’m sorry to have bothered you, but may I have a word with you?” she asked. I felt my mouth part and my eyes blinking again.

“Um...yeah! Sure, be my guest!” I gestured to her and I honestly don’t know what for. I mean, I can’t exactly say no to the highest ranking person—alongside the royalties—in Ignolia.

“I’m afraid that my question would be considered rather rude. I do not want to bother you, child,” she spoke softly, and I widened my eyes, shaking my head and feeling my hair flapping during the process.

“No! Not at all!” I exclaimed, sounding rather loud and flustered. What is wrong with me? I really needed to get a grip!

She smiled and moved closer to me, seeming like she wanted to keep whatever she was going to say as privet as possible. “Now, child. I presume you know who I am?”

“Yes, ma’am—I mean uh...um...” I wasn’t sure what to address her as, my eyes darting towards my fingers as I fumbled with them rather hastily. I know I looked, and sounded, pathetic as hell but Agatha Alastair was one of the few leaders I admired in our world, so talking to her was kinda of a big deal for me.

I saw her shaking her head, smiling at me amusingly. “Oh don’t worry yourself, child. You can call me whatever you like.” She wore such a calm, collected expression, and I couldn’t help but notice, or feel, the enormous magic radiating from her.

It’s like every space around her was tainted with it. And even with a room filled with various magic powers, hers, and possibly those with exceptional powers, differed from the rest.

“Child, I was asking King Gabriel about you that day at your guardian’s funeral, and he told me you were a house guest of his. Your name was Lydia, was it?” I nodded, a bit surprised that the King would refer me as a house guest. I would expect him to call me a ‘vermin’ or a ‘liability’ but I hardly think he would say that in front of Agatha Alastair.

“If I may, I think it would be fair to assume that you, my child, are a Slifer?” Her face grew serious but she still had that pleasant and welcoming attitude. Her questioning calm eyes peered through my own and I knew there was no way of lying to her even if I wanted to.

“Yes. I am.”

Her white eyebrows rose faintly, her calmness fading for a second and being replaced by alarm, but she quickly regained her posture back. “I see.” Her chest heaved, and I saw her rubbing the back of her thin, wrinkled fingers. “And I wouldn’t be mistaken if I also assumed that the girl named Ayana is a Slifer as well?”

“Yes. She is.”

“...and that boy as well,” I heard her whisper, more to herself than to me.

“Ma’am,” I cleared my throat, and she turned her wandering eyes to me. “I’m sorry, but...why do you ask such a question? Is it really that odd seeing a Slifer?” The slight distress she showed confused me, though she tried to tone it down.

Her bony hand reached my shoulder and squeezed it firmly, as if attempting to give me her support for something. “Child, it’s not that seeing a Slifer is odd, it’s seeing the lot of them that is quite...unusual.”

My eyebrows twisted together. “I don’t understand?”

She took her hand back and adjusted her robes, taking her time with them and seeming like she wanted to take whatever minutes she had to explain. Eventually, she heaved a great sigh. “You see, throughout our history, there has been only two sighting of Slifers. One happened three decades before where an Earth Slifer was seen, and a century beforehand a Water one appeared.”

“Those two appeared in completely different times and places. Now, the only other information we have on the other Slifers is throughout books and ancient tales.” Her eyes locked with mine, and whatever she was about to say next caused a disturbance to occur at the pit of my stomach.

“It is believed, that whenever there shall come a time when more than one Slifer is seen, that could only mean that a great war will befall upon us. Slifers are known to be children and soldiers of the gods, which means that their existence was created to serve and protect whatever the gods wish them to. You see, they are the will of our gods.”

Something churned within my stomach, like a huge lump being stirred and twisted. So that’s why those people were stunned when they saw I was a Slifer. It wasn’t the fact that I was a Slifer that shocked them, it was because I wasn’t the only one. But then that means...

“When that Ayana girl entered, followed by the boy Redmond, and then you, everyone was on their feet...”

Redmond? Who the hell is Redmond?

But before I could ask her, a man dressed in silver robes came and tapped her shoulder. He whispered something in her ear and she turned to me, excusing herself, before she went along with him.

I was left alone with my thoughts, and my thoughts led me to the food table for I couldn’t handle the buzzing noise that surrounded me. My throat felt parched for some reason and I felt If I didn’t get something to drink I would faint.

I caught sight of Luxus dragging a chicken leg down under the table, completely hidden from view and I wished I was having the same day as him. Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone accompanying the table so I was left alone with a goblet of strawberry wine I had poured for myself.

I drank the whole thing in one gulp, the bittersweet taste of the alcohol burning my throat but I paid no mind to it. My head was currently filled with what Agatha Alastair just told me. A war?

Did people really believe that?

Is that why I was assigned to protect the King? Because there was a war about to happen soon?

Slifers are known to be children and soldiers of the gods...

I knew my existence was brought because of the gods, but I’ve always questioned why that is. What made us Slifers so special and different from other wizards?

So many things swam in my mind I didn’t know which one to focus on. And my head started aching and I didn’t know whether it was because of the information I just got or because I drank an entire mouthful of wine without so much as sniffing food.

“Why the long face, miss?” A cheerful voice came from my right and I almost jumped to see a tall figure standing right next to me.

A boy about my age smiled down at me. He was very handsome and dressed in a navy-blue suit that fitted his defined body well. My eyes trailed longer at his face, particularly at how his eyes seemed to be in different shades of green. They were so striking that for a moment I couldn’t help but stare at how they complemented the rich brown colour of his skin.

His hair, I noticed, was cropped short and it looked to be a darker shade of brown at the end, while the front was more to a lighter shade. And I could swear I saw some green strands along his sides planted between the brown ones. I blinked twice to ensure that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.

I realized that the boy was waiting for me to answer his previous question, so I cleared my mind for a bit and turned fully towards him. “Uh...I’m alright, I just heard something quite...disturbing.” I tried to smile but it came out crooked.

His full lips pouted “Well, that’s not good,” He seemed to be searching his pockets for something. “I’m sure I have something that might cheer you up....ah! There it is.” He pulled out his hand and crumbled it into a fist.

He grinned at me, all set of his white teeth beaming, and presented me his fist. “Open it.”

I raised an eyebrow, my lips twitching into a smile. “Really?”

“C’mon!” He inclined his head down, his eyes dancing. “Do it.”

I honestly don’t know how I ended up playing whatever game he had, but I gave it a shrug of my shoulder as I placed my hands on his fist and slowly pried open each elegant finger. I highly doubted there was something in there even if he was looking down at me with excitement. He really looked like a kid doing so...

And just as I expected there was nothing but air in his palms. But his reaction didn’t flatten, even when I turned my head up at him with a smirk. And it was in that split second that a force of magic, very familiar and ancient, fogged the air around us. And I saw as a single, red rose bloomed out of his palm, blossoming as the petals grew wider, and so did my eyes and lips.

I still had my mouth open when he picked the rose and fixed it between my hairs. “The red one for you, and the blue one is for that Ayana. She also had about the same expression as you.” He chuckled.

But I wasn’t really listening. I was replying the few seconds when his hand was empty but then a rose grew out of nowhere. This boy...

He’s—

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be going. I’ll see you around, Lydia,” He smiled. And with that, he turned on his heels and started walking away, all while my eyes trailed after him. He stopped suddenly and turned back to me. “Oh, and my name is Redmond, by the way.”

He stalked away to join a woman who seemed as if she was glowing. I saw him slip an arm around her waist and bring her closer to him. She responded by squeezing his shoulder, casting him a smile before she turned to hold hands with a red haired woman. And it’s then that it was registered in me just who that boy was, and what he was. How those green hairs weren’t from my imagination, and how he seemed to conjure a rose out of thin air.

And how the woman next to him was wearing a crown that showed exactly who she was.

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