The Flames That Bind Us

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20. The Boy in The Garden

♎♎♎ Suri Sabri♎♎♎

“Thank you, miss, and please come back again,” the small elf woman said and grinned at me. I thanked her back, grabbing my purchase and stuffing it hurriedly in my bag. The people around me didn’t seem to pay attention, but the woman behind the wooden counter glanced at me in confusion before she went back to her work. I didn’t wait for another pair of eyes to notice me, walking out of the pharmaceutical shop as fast as my legs could carry me.

Buying the damned draught was embarrassing enough, especially for someone who was barely out of their teenage years. Though, I don’t think people particularly cared around here. It was the first thing I decided to do when I woke up this morning. My night with the King left me wandering in dreamless sleep that when I finally opened my eyes I realized I had slept through all morning. But one thought registered in my mind, making me dress quickly and set out to town.

I wasn’t sure when the next ‘session’ with the King would be—and honestly I didn’t want to know—but I needed to be prepared. I know the King didn’t spill his seed inside me—thankfully—and the thought left me momentarily disgusted and partly flushed when remembering. Nevertheless, I was going to be extra careful with that. The last thing I needed was a haste moment of heat that would leave me carrying his child. The idea was both revolting and terrifying.

Though, finding the appropriate fertility control draught was a huge pain in the ass. I had spent almost an hour searching for the right kind—or at least the one I was acknowledged of. There were so many types either domestically produced or brought in from the mortal realm. They were in the forms of bills, rubber, and some kind of a thick gooey paste. Not to mention they were outrageously expensive.

Finally, and after what felt like a lifetime, I had stumbled upon an old-looking medical shop that sold its product in affordable prices. The owner of the shop was an elf woman and she told me that her shop was one of the oldest and first established shops in Imarnia. Then, she went on asking me about my age, weight, menstrual cycle, whether or not I’m sexually active, and other health-related questions in which I answered while looking like a ripe tomato.

She did that all while scribbling notes in her giant old ledger and mixing the draught for me. At that moment, I was so glad that I didn’t bring Luxus with me. Noticing ogling eyes scanning my braided hair, I tucked my worn out brown jacket closer to my body and stalked forward, lowering my eyes and praying I remembered which way I came from.

I glanced at the clock tower hovering over the town’s square, its slender shaped clock hands announcing that it was one in the afternoon. It was almost time for lunch. No wonder why people around me were heading inside restaurants and coffee shops. And just like that, my stomach grumbled. Damn...I hadn’t eaten breakfast since I rushed out of the palace without as much as a second thought. My stomach was piercingly empty, demanding to be filled.

Maybe I should eat in one of the restaurants here? I looked around, and almost immediately gave up on that idea. There’s no way in hell I would be able to afford eating in any place here, and I don’t think restaurants as fancy as these would take in a girl who looked halfway homeless. I really needed to buy a whole new wardrobe, but first I needed to find a job to be able to pay for that wardrobe. I don’t think finishing school would do me any good. Being a scholar wasn’t really my goal anyway.

I decided on going back to the palace and having my lunch there, in my room with Luxus, as usual.

***

When I came into the palace, he was there. Not the King, but that boy Redmond. And he wasn’t in my room, but in the garden underneath the balcony of my room. I was just on my way back up the stone stairs when I caught the whiff of familiar, ancient magic in the air. Being me, I couldn’t help not to go looking. And I found him there, sitting crossed-legged among unusually tall weeds of grass that spiralled all the way to his arms and intertwined around his torso and shoulders. That was his work, that’s for sure. Because these weren’t around before. But he wasn’t alone. Three children, two girls and a boy—who looked to be the servants’ offspring’s—were playing around a large, greatly thick tree trunk that sprung from the spot of ground before him.

The tree trunk was hunched over, from its wooden sections rooted various tall branches covered with rainbow-coloured curtain of small flowers. The children were laughing giddily as they climbed, skipped, and swung over the miniature tree, which definitely wasn’t here the last time I laid eyes on this garden. Redmond snapped his attention from the book he was reading to my standing form, and smiled brightly upon laying his eyes on me.

I didn’t know which was brighter, his smile or the vibrant shades of the green in his eyes?

“Lydia! Nice to see you here,” he spoke as if we had met a hundred of times when it was just once. He closed his book with a soft thud and patted the spot beside him. “Come sit. We weren’t properly introduced last night.”

“Uh...” I retaliated a bit, and probably looked dumb while doing so. I mean I knew nothing about the guy. Hence, why this would be a good opportunity to meet yet another fellow Slifer. I was still slightly gaping at the small tree he created and how breath-taking it was when it probably took hundreds of years for the other trees around here to grow, while he most definitely only took a couple of seconds.

“Y-yes. Sure, I would love to.” I moved towards him and seated myself on the grass, making sure I didn’t accidently sit on one of the weeds that clutched gently at his arms.

His white teeth gleamed at me excitedly, and I felt myself growing awkward. “You and Ayana are the first Slifers I’ve met—well I mean of course you are. I haven’t met the Wind Slifer yet. Anyway, it’s so exciting to meet one of your own kind, don’t you think?”

“Yeah. Although my first encounter with Ayana wasn’t exactly friendly,” I said, remembering the feeling of cold water soaking my skin.

“She told me that,” his eyes widened along with his lips. “She said she thought you were a Wizard Hunter. Can’t blame her really, those people are terrible.”

“Are you saying I look like a Wizard Hunter?” I raised a teasing eyebrow.

He didn’t get the jape, and instead shook his head violently I thought for a moment it was going to fall off. “No! No, I just meant that they’re dangerous...an-and powerful...and all that...I-I didn’t mean—”

“It’s ok,” I couldn’t help the laugh, and he seemed relieved that I wasn’t really offended. “It was just a joke. Calm down.”

“Oh...” his shoulders fell, and he blinked at me twice. “Sorry. I don’t normally get these things. Queen Adria is usually the one to crack jokes wherever she went. Sometimes, I’m too slow to catch on.”

He reminded me so much of Ayana. The same shyness and timid behaviour. “But you were so charismatic last night?” When I realized what I said, I quickly added, “Not that you aren’t, of course! I didn’t mean it in that way.”

He smiled nonetheless. “It’s alright. I was only like that because I wanted a chance to talk to you and Ayana. Before you arrived, when it was just Ayana, it took both the Queen and her wife to encourage me to approach her.”

“Is she nice?” I asked, “The Queen?”

At my question, his multi-shaded green eyes—which I’ve noticed had brown flecks—lit up. I knew the answer immediately, and I was both joyous and envious of him. I wished I had the same look on my face whenever someone asked me about the King. “She’s amazing,” he announced, “she’s so strong, and beautiful, and smart, and such a wonderful ruler loved by her people.”

“She’s also married,” I reminded him, “...to a woman.” And I hear she only likes the company of her own sex too, unlike King Calix.

Redmond’s face reddened, and he nodded hastily. “I-I know! It’s not what you think! I do like her, and admire her a lot, but I don’t feel that way about her!”

I was about to tell him that it was alright, that he didn’t need to explain himself every time, but he continued on rambling, “I mean, she’s amazing! She truly is. And she’s so kind to me. But when we...we do t-that, it’s always just duty. And her wife—General Malla—is so nice to me. And courageous! And brave. And—”

“Redmond!” At this point I grabbed him by the shoulder and shook the poor blushing boy. He thankfully clapped his mouth shut, though left it slightly gaping at me. “I really don’t need to know all of that. I just asked if she was nice, that’s all.”

The boy stilled for a moment, seeming to consider, then cleared his throat and lowered his head—though it did nothing to hide the deep dark blush painted across his brown skin. “I’m sorry...” again, he was back to apologizing. “I didn’t mean to talk too much.”

“It’s fine. You don’t need to apologize,” I assured him, but he only nodded.

He was more like Ayana than I realized, always apologizing and stuttering. But he seemed genuine, and honest...overly honest if you ask me. For a few moments, we silently sat and watched over the children still having fun by Redmond’s little creation. It didn’t feel strange, oddly. Even though I was having a peaceful quite moment with a person I hardly knew.

But that moment didn’t last much longer, because Redmond randomly blurted, “You’re beautiful, by the way.”

I turned my head to him, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “What?”

His eyes widened again, the blush finding its way back to his cheek and he looked ready to burst out the words again. I quickly lifted a threatening finger at him. “Don’t say you’re sorry! Or that you didn’t mean to.”

He shook his head, explaining, “So—I mean—I only was saying that you and Ayana have that unearthly beauty I keep reading about in old Slifer legends. My guardian was an old fairy who owned a very famous flower shop, so lots of people from all races come to her. I used to help out often, and I would see so many people who looked all different. But I’ve never seen someone like you, or Ayana.”

I was suddenly very flattered. And when I looked at him—this time thoroughly—his own beauty registered in me. His beauty was unlike the King’s, in which the King radiated with cold handsomeness and absolute sensualism. Redmond had so much innocence in him, his large bright eyes, dark smooth skin, and lean boyish frame. He was soft spoken, a gentle aura seeming to wrap around him. And that only intensified by the deep planted dimples that appeared every time he smiled. Even his smile had a child-like impression in it.

I realized I was probably staring at him, although he didn’t seem to notice either. “Thank you. I think you’re beautiful as well.”

That made the biggest grin I’ve ever seen paint his face.

***

“Finally! You’re here. I’ve been waiting for you. Where have you been?” Lysa was sitting on my bed with a sketchbook laid on her lap and a pencil in her hand, not to mention the one nestled between her ears. Her bright pink hair was shining so brightly thanks to the seeping sunlight that it managed to blind me for a moment. I blinked at her three times before I stopped seeing her head as a gleaming beacon.

“Uh...I was just out buying stuff.” I motioned at my bag, still clearly confused on why she was here.

“Oh, goodie! Did you buy anything interesting?” Her sharply eye-lined eyes inspected my bag as I laid it out on the bedside table.

“Not really. Just some medicine,” I lied—well kind of.

This time she looked at me with concern. “Medicine? Are you okay? You know Lis can have a look at you if you want.”

“No,” I said, “it’s just something for a cold. You know, in case I get sick in this weather.”

“Ugh!” She twisted her face, waving her manicured hand. “I hate this season! Great fashions, but terrible runny nose for me.”

She snapped her ringed fingers, sitting abruptly. “Which reminds me,” she moved to stand before me, placing her hand on her hips. “What are you going to wear?”

“Wear what?”

The pink-haired fairy slapped my arm playfully. “For today, silly!”

“What’s today?”

“Lis didn’t tell you?” Her head tilted to the side.

“Tell me what?” I was starting to believe that she must think I was a very stupid individual, and honestly I was feeling like it at the moment.

“About lunch today!? Honestly, she kept reminding herself to inform you last night then she goes ahead and forget. Oh, that Lis!”

I wasn’t going to ask anything, I will just let her explain. Since I knew she would do anyway and also because I couldn’t afford to look even more of an idiot again. She twisted a strand of hair between one elegant white finger. “It’s customary to have lunch with the royal court once the other kings and queens arrive. Everyone is going to be there, Gabe, Lis, both King Morrison and Queen Adria and their guest. Aero, and most importantly myself.”

She smiled as she adjusted some of the black-flamed locks around my face. “And of course, you’re invited. And your cat too.”

“Wait...I’m invited?” I asked.

“Mhm, obviously.” She was too busy fixing a stubborn hair that wouldn’t bend to the way she wanted it to, but I wasn’t sure of how I was feeling.

“Why?”

“What do you mean ‘why’?” She looked at me like I’ve said the most ridiculous thing. “You’re a house guest. And Lis insists.”

Lis does, but not the King. Although, he did say that it wasn’t his concern whether I mingled with his people or not. And it’s not like I cared what he thought anyway. It’s just that I didn’t feel like seeing him today—or any other day. But having lunch with so many interesting people seemed like fun. Who cares if that wretched King would be there too?

“So,” she was back to grinning at me. “Have you decided what to wear?”

“Uh...“I looked down at what I was currently wearing, turning back to look at her only to see her make a horrified expression as she eyed the piece of clothing on my body. She looked like she wanted to tear it in half.

“You’re kidding?”

I just shrugged. It wasn’t that bad...oh who was I kidding? I looked like a walking sack. Wearing something fashionable wasn’t exactly on my mind this morning when I rushed out of my room. I just grabbed whatever clothes I could find and put it on. Which ended up being a faded black pants with dark brown turtle-neck shirt and a baggy brown jacket.

Lysa shook her head, clicking her tongue. “Oh no, this won’t do.” She brushed pass me and entered the walk-in closet. I trailed behind her, watching her examine some of my clothes and wincing everytime she cringed at one of them. Yeah...I definitely needed a new wardrobe change.

“Is that all you’ve got?” she asked, shaking a long wide navy skirt at me.

“I had a dress.”

“Had a dress?” Both of her narrow pink eyebrows rose.

I bit my lip. “It tore when I was fighting those Wizard Hunters.”

She huffed, putting the skirt back to its place, although she seemed as if she would happily burn it instead. She folded her arms above her chest, her eyes searching along the wide space of the closet. She caught the sight of the nicer, more expensive wardrobe selection behind me. “What is that?” Her slender legs skipped towards it.

“Oh, these are just some clothes that the Princess lent me. They’re not mine,” I explained, but she didn’t seem to hear any words that came from my mouth.

Lysa examined the pieces of outfits displayed before her, then she turned to me with a wicked grin and clapped her hands together. “They’re perfect!”

Oh, no...

I had spent about ten minutes trying to convince her that I couldn’t just wear something that wasn’t mine, and she had spent another ten trying to convince me that Lis gave them to me. She even challenged herself and vowed that she would never allow herself to present me to the royal court while dressed in my usual clothes. And I tried to counter her from any angle but she refused to be moved. Arguing with her was like arguing with a stone wall. She had such a feisty and determined spirit for someone so small, and I didn’t know whether to admire that or pull out my hair in frustration. Nevertheless, after so many failed attempts, I finally yielded.

She literally squealed of joy, and I let her delve into her thoughts as she picked out an outfit for me. When she was finished, she laid it out for me on the bed, and gave me the much-needed privacy to dress. I admired the selection for a few minutes before I put it on. Despite my previous protest, I had to confess that when I looked at myself in the mirror, I had liked what I was seeing. The combination of the outfit was really simple but elegant. And it was modern-looking.

She had me wear a black turtle-neck shirt with long sleeves that fit the upper half of my body perfectly, showcasing a nice curve around my breasts and stomach. She chose a beige checkered skirt that flared to my mid-thigh, underneath it I wore black stockings. I honestly liked the daring length of the skirt and was really enjoying how my legs looked. As for my footwear, she picked a short laced-up black boots with small heels.

Next, she focused on my hair and make-up. She undid my hair from its braid—just like I expected she would—and styled it in a simple half-down hairstyle. For make-up, she used that modern-tool I see so many girls use to do my eyeliner and added a bit of lip gloss. She paired a couple of small earrings and a wrist-watch to my look.

After she was done, she gleamed at the finished project—me—happily. “There, you’re done!”

“Thank you so much. You really didn’t have to do all of this,” I kept saying that to her during the whole process. In which she replied by either shushing me or glaring at me. This time, she chose glaring. I zipped my mouth shut with a small smile tugging at my lips. This felt warm. I’ve never had this before. I lived my life with a cat and an old man, so it was really nice—more than nice—to have this kind of interaction with another girl.

“Now!” her hands clapping startled me. “We have an empty stomach to fill. And we are going to do that while looking absolutely fabulous!”

As if in anticipation, my stomach grumbled again. And for just a tiny moment, I completely forgot that I was going to have lunch with the most prestigious people in all of Ignolia.

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